Will An Antenna Give You Faster Mobile Broadband Download Speeds?

Using an antenna in terrible reception areas to make your phone or broadband work is a good idea. But will using an antenna in an area where you already have reception make a significant difference to your internet speeds if you've already got fair reception?

To test this theory, I took the Sierra Wireless Hotspot that Telstra sells as the Ultimate 4G Wireless up to the Kickstart Media conference on the Sunshine coast recently.

It's an area that, according to Telstra's coverage maps, should be blanketed in rich, fast, comforting 4G coverage, but as we've seen many times before, there can be a massive gulf between coverage maps and coverage reality.

Also, I was going to be in conference rooms packed with IT journalists, and there is no finer force in the galaxy for bringing a mobile data network to its trembling knees. As such, I also packed a MIMO antenna (disclaimer: Sierra Wireless provided it to me for the purposes of review) into my bag. It's not the smallest of creatures, but I was curious to see whether it could make a difference to the overall Internet connection.

I ran three sets of tests in total using the Speedtest.net running on a connected Macbook Air. Each test was run three times in quick succession and averaged with as fast a switchover to the antenna as feasible to ensure that figures were as close as was practical.

The first test was deliberately brutal, conducted inside a conference room during bad weather with heavy set doors, because 1800Mhz signals don't transfer through buildings all that well. The hotspot never managed anything but a 3G signal, even with the antenna attached.

Device Ping (ms) Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps)
WiFi Hotspot (No Antenna) 80.3 9.62 0.63
WiFi Hotspot (With Antenna) 96 9.12 0.29

The next test was performed in a restaurant with mostly glass windows and plenty of exposure. Here the hotspot could see Telstra's 4G network.

Device Ping (ms) Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps)
WiFi Hotspot (No Antenna) 76 11.5 14.65
WiFi Hotspot (With Antenna) 73.6 12.43 17.87

My final test was run at Maroochydore airport while waiting for a delayed plane, although it once again struggled and couldn't find the 4G network, although other devices nearby could.

Device Ping (ms) Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps)
WiFi Hotspot (No Antenna) 54.3 10.55 1.06
WiFi Hotspot (With Antenna) 59.66 4.22 0.69

We've said it before and we'll say it again; mobile broadband can be great -- I certainly couldn't do my job without it -- but it's highly variable stuff. Still, the figures do strongly indicate that if you've already got signal the differences made by an antenna are likely to be minimal. I have seen this exact antenna work well in areas of poor reception, but in areas where you can expect decent signal, all you're doing is lugging around an extra gadget with no real benefit.

Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman never leaves home without at least two forms of wireless broadband. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


Comments

    But will using an antenna in an area where you already have reception make a significant difference to your internet speeds if you’ve already got fair reception?

    BAM! There go those awesome Giz proof reading skillz again.

      For an article on Lifehacker.

      That aside, what about that sentence confuses you? You've got a connection, and it's decent. Will an antenna make it better?

    Haha opps... I meant Lifehacker :)

    Just a bit of repetition, that's all.

    I would say this depends on the antenna used and what particular frequencies it's tuned for.

    When I tested a 9db gain whip antenna (about 90cms long, screws into a base, which then has a cable running to the broadband modem) in my home on 3G, using the antenna more than doubled the internet speed, and my reception was already excellent at -75dbm - the addition of the antenna took it down to -55dbm.

    I then used it on a train trip from Sydney to Tamworth, and the coverage and speed were greatly improved (although I still lost all NextG coverage at points along the line, so it wasn't perfect)

    In particular with the tests were the speed was lower, this suggests to me the antenna may not have been connected properly, or the antenna or it's cable could be faulty.

    When connecting an external antenna, you should always see an improvement in the -xxdbm signal, where lower numbers are better.
    Generally speaking
    -100-120dbm = very weak signal, internet may not connect or it will be very slow
    -80-100dbm = fair signal
    -70-80dbm = good signal
    below -70dbm = excellent signal

    I suggest you try a different antenna because those results don't seem quite right to me.

    Additionally part of the appeal of these external antennas is the ability to reach cells further away from the congestion you are trying to overcome. A little desktop model like that may not have enough gain to get that result however.

    I'm going to maroochydore in a couple of weeks, I might have to take my external antenna with my ZTE modem (on the virgin/optus 3G network), run simiilar tests and send them in to lifehacker :)

    Last edited 05/03/13 1:47 pm

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now