Can 4G mobile broadband offer reliable back up internet access for event amplifiers?
In this post we review our experiences with an EE 4G mobile wifi hotspot and explore how it can be used to support our work in the field.
Internet coverage at conference venues can be variable, and we often arrive at a conference venue to discover upload speeds that are less than ideal for some event amplification activities, such as live video streaming.
In many cases, the venue can provide access to a shared wifi network, but cannot provide a dedicated wired internet connection without charging an extortionate amount. Hotels typically charge £75-£150 per day for a wired connection and often expect us to provide our own ethernet cable! Even when the speeds are good, there can still be issues when the wireless network grinds to a halt under the strain of a data-hungry audience, or when the internet connection fails completely.
In a bid to find a reliable, high speed back up option, we investigated the range of 4G hotspots on the market to see if 4G really could be the answer for event amplifiers.
What is a 4G Hotspot?
A 4G hotspot is a small device that connects to the internet via the 4G or 3G mobile network and broadcasts a local wifi signal that can be accessed by a range of devices.
3G hotspots and dongles (often known as ‘mifi’ devices) have been around for some time. We once live streamed a talk from inside SS Great Britain via a 3G dongle. The footage was not great (partly due to the low lighting conditions), but it was sufficient for standard/low definition video stream. However, even in strong 3G signal areas we couldn’t get stable enough upload speeds for more than low bandwidth uses, such as tweeting.
4G came to the UK in October 2012 in selected locations. Since then, the network coverage has increased, making it a more viable option. With the arrival of double speed 4G in some areas, a 4G hotspot can potentially get faster internet speeds than many wired internet connections.
Choosing a 4G Hotspot
What Were We Looking For?
Network coverage was most important factor in our search for a suitable 4G hotspot. We travel across the UK to amplify a range of conferences and workshops. Whilst many of our events are in city centres or at university campuses, we need the flexibility to work from a wide range of locations, including rural areas.
At the moment, EE seems to have the best coverage, due to a head start in the 4G spectrum. As time goes on, that advantage may be eroded. Restricting ourselves to EE narrowed down our choice of devices to those available from EE.
Other considerations included the battery life of the hotspot, its durability, and the number of devices that can be connected to it at any given time.
At the time of purchase, EE had a choice of two devices:
- Osprey – a rugged device with 6 hours battery life
- Huawei E5776 – a slightly less durable device with 10 hours battery life
We chose the Huawei, as this has the better battery life of the two. With power points being at a premium even in relatively new conference venues, battery life is a key feature. This would also allow us to be completely mobile, rather than tethered to a fixed charging point – vital when using the hotspot as part of our mobile live video stream rig.
4G Coverage in the UK
Standard 4G speeds in the UK tend to be around 10-15Mbps download and 10Mbps upload. EE offers double speed 4G in places, which can result in speeds up to 20-30Mbps download and around 20Mbps upload. This is faster than many home broadband connections – including our fibre optic connection here in Bath!
EE provides a coverage checker to give an indication of the availability of a 4G signal across the UK. When you click through on this map, you can search for your venue’s location to assess whether there is 4G or double speed 4G coverage in the area.
Obviously these speeds cannot be guaranteed – particularly inside buildings – but the coverage map does give a useful indication as to whether the hotspot will be a viable primary or backup option for a particular event or venue.
We purchased the hotspot in March of this year and have used it in anger at several events, so we have a reasonable idea of its performance – certainly for the types of online activity we typically need to carry out at events.
Here are a couple of examples of the hotspot’s performance in different situations:
AHRC Connected Communities Festival
In July 2014 we planned to use the hotspot as part of our mobile live video stream rig at the AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival.
When streaming at a video resolution of 480p for up to five hours per day, we found:
- Average data rate: 1200Kbps
- Data usage: Approximately 500MB per hour
The signal strength inside parts of the venue was sometimes an issue. We occasionally found it necessary to move around a room to find the best spot for the 4G signal. In this interview, you can see my beautiful assistant hovering in the back of the shot holding the ‘the internet’, as this was the one position in the room where we could get a good signal. For some reason, this always reminds me of this clip from The IT Crowd:
Legatum Institute Lecture
We recently facilitated the live video stream of Boris Johnson’s lecture for the Legatum Institute at the British Academy in London. The team at the Legatum Institute were keen to offer an HD stream via YouTube. After streaming for 1.5 hours at 720p we found:
- Average data rate: 2500Kbps
- Data usage: Approximately 1.3GB per hour
We experienced no problems streaming in HD via the 4G hotspot. However, the computer driving the live stream was also connected to a 10Mbps (upload) wired connection, which provided redundancy in the event of any dip in connection. The hotspot provided 12-13Mbps upload.
Top Up Woes
This has been the major drawback for the hotspot. The device itself is extremely easy to use and has been a really valuable option for us. However, the process of topping up the data allowance has been a bit of a saga.
When we purchased the hotspot in the EE store the store assistant neglected to enter our postcode, which caused issues with the account creation process when we tried to create an account through the 4G EE iPhone app. I concede that this may have been a one-off incident caused by one store assistant. We called EE’s technical support, who were very helpful and fixed the problem for us.
The EE app shows the data remaining and theoretically allows you to add further data on the go.
Once we had created the account, we had to add money to the account, with which we could purchase data bolt ons. The hotspot came with 6GB included, which lasts for 90 days. Further data can be added for £20 for 4GB of data for 30 days. We encountered a bug in EE’s system that prevented us buying another bolt on before the 90 days were up, even though we had used all 6GB of data. Again, the nice technical support staff were able to help, but it did mean that the first top up was not the quick-and-easy process we were expecting.
Further tops have been hit and miss. EE seems to have a lot of problems with their top up systems and we have yet to successfully top up the device without going through to the technical support department. The iPhone app also seems to forget our current data allowance and usage, so this is not yet as useful as it could be.
Data Bolt Ons
One of the difficulties we found is that EE have a restriction in place that prevents you from buying another data bolt on until the one you have has been used up. This seems stupid, but is presumably not a problem for most use cases. If we are using the hotspot as a back up for a live video stream in an event situation, we need a constant connection, and cannot stop to muck around with the top up process when we run out of data.
In practice, this means that we have to calculate how much data we expect to use in advance. If the existing bolt on is likely to run out during an event, we have to deliberately eat the data (watching iPlayer seems to do the trick!) and add a fresh bolt on ready for the day’s coverage. This seems wasteful, but it seems to be the only way to ensure that we don’t lose service at a crucial moment during a live event.
There are monthly data plans available, but again, these provide a set amount of data, after which a new bolt on must be purchased if you need more data within a given month. As we do not need to use the hotspot all the time, pay as you go is currently the most cost effective option for us.
In an environment where the venue wifi is poor, it is tempting to connect other devices to the hotspots, including mobile phones and tablets. This can increase the data usage and result in the hotspot running out of data earlier than planned. It will also reduce the connection speed available to each device.
If the hotspot is supporting a mission critical activity – such as a live video stream – then it is important to map out all of the other potential data uses associated with the event when calculating the likely data use. If necessary, other devices may have to make do with the local wifi network so that the hotspot can be dedicated to a primary task.
We have not conducted a full 10-hour test, but we have generally found that the battery lasted between 6-7 hours. However, we were using the device quite intensively. In low signal areas, the battery usage may to be higher, as the hotspot will be working harder to boost a weak signal.
Despite the ongoing top up headaches, the 4G hotspot has been a fantastic purchase, allowing us to be more flexible and confident in our ability to deliver event amplification services in a variety of situations. We have been impressed with the speeds offered by the 4G network and the general stability of the connection.
In fact, we are now a two-hotspot family, which gives us a degree of further flexibility, particularly when we need to monitor a live stream on a separate connection, run two mobile streams at once, or if there is a problem with the top up on one device.
The relief of knowing that wherever we go, whatever the venue’s internet speed, we can still operate independently is a great bonus that was very much worth the modest investment in the hotspots.