Cellular Internet Settings

Cellular Internet Settings

The basics on getting your cellular plan to work. 
(If you haven't yet, Start Here first.)

General Settings

Due to the vast amount of devices & hardware options available, we won't be able to cover many specifics. However, we can give you the general things you need to know about on most cellular setups. Depending on which specific cellular plan you get (Step 2), you'll need to be aware of the 4 main things below.

1. Device Identity

An IMEI identifies your device to the carrier.

2. Data Network

An APN connects your device to the internet.

3. Hotspot Detection

Carriers can detect hotspot data usage.

4. Video Throttle

Some plans throttle video streaming to lower quality.

Settings Details

Device Identity is a way for carriers to determine what device and device type is accessing their network. They primarily determine this through the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity).

Depending on the cellular plan you choose (Step 2) and what device you put the SIM inside of, you may or may not need to modify your IMEI to avoid being shutdown by the carrier. Because, if someone puts something like a tablet plan SIM inside of an unmodified cellular modem/router, the carrier will detect this and eventually shut the line down.

So, let's take, for example, the $20/month AT&T Postpaid standalone Unlimited Tablet plan.
IMEI is important because if you want to use this plan in in an unapproved device (a non-tablet/iPad), that is against the TOS (Terms of Service). If you don't care about the TOS, then yes, you can use the SIM inside of an unapproved device. However, AT&T will detect this and eventually will shut the plan down (may take days, weeks, or months). So, you have to trick AT&T's system to not detect the device. The way people do this is IMEI modification (also referred to as "spoofing", "repair”, "magic”, “identity crisis”, or "a Mofi that thinks it is a tablet"). You will need to change the device's IMEI to a compatible iPad/tablet IMEI so that it "tricks" AT&T's system. (The same principles apply to using a phone plan - you will need to use a compatible phone IMEI.)

One issue is that not all cellular modems/routers support IMEI modification. For example, the Netgear Nighthawk M1 does, but the Nighthawk M5 does not (at the time of writing). So, for example, you could use the $20 AT&T Tablet Plan in a modified M1 with no worries, but not on the M5, since it cannot be modified. 

As for actually performing this IMEI modification, unfortunately, each device/modem vary some in the actual steps, so we won't dive into the specifics. However, in general, it is usually not available in the cellular router’s settings, but has to be set with a computer program that is directly connected to the modem/router. Also, we can point you to some resources:
> There is a relatively user-friendly program that is used on some devices, especially the most popular, the Nighthawk M1. This program is called DC Unlocker. However, not all devices are supported and it does cost.
> There are some forums, Facebook groups, Reddit posts, etc that do provide information for IMEI modifications. Google can be your friend on this one.
> Many times IMEI modifications are performed by connecting to the device via something called Telnet using AT Commands in Command Prompt/Terminal or a 3rd party program similar to PuTTY for Windows. This sounds daunting, but if you can find a tutorial for your specific device, it usually isn't too difficult.

*One important thing to note is that IMEI modification is illegal in some countries, but it has been argued that it is not illegal in the United States. What is clearly illegal in the U.S. is using an IMEI of a device that you do not own. So, it would be better to change the IMEI of a device to the IMEI of another device that you own.
**Do not use two or more devices with the same IMEI connected to the same cellular carrier at the same time.

The cellular modem/router needs to know what data network to connect to, this is called the APN (Access Point Name). Each cellular plan has a specific APN that works to connect it to the carrier’s data network. So for example, the $20 AT&T Tablet Plan uses the “broadband” APN. This setting is usually easily found in the cellular modem/router’s settings. This is one of the easiest parts of getting your cellular internet setup ready. 

Find your APN by carrier here or here.

Depending on the cellular plan you chose (Step 2), most plans have a limited amount of hotspot data, and then it is either capped or throttled to nearly unusable speeds. Most of the time, putting the SIM inside of a cellular modem/router will be detected as hotspot data.

If you chose a limited hotspot data plan (ie. $90 AT&T Prepaid 100GB Hotspot Data plan), then there is nothing that can get around that limit. If you chose a phone/tablet plan that has a limit on normal usage (ie. $30 AT&T Prepaid 5 GB plan), then there is nothing that can get around that limit. But, if you chose an unlimited plan that either has a hotspot data limit (ie. $20 AT&T Standalone Tablet Plan w/ 10 GB of high speed hotspot data) or no hotspot data included, you need to make sure the carrier doesn’t detect hotspot data usage. The reason for this is because it will either be non-functional, throttled from the beginning, or throttled after the plan’s high speed hotspot data allotment is used up.

For example, the current AT&T $20 tablet plan only includes 10 GB of high speed hotspot data, and then it is throttled to a nearly unusable 128 Kbps. On AT&T, they categorize hotspot data usage by the APN that is used. If you use the correct APN (“broadband” for this plan), then AT&T will not detect hotspot usage and there will be no hotspot throttle.

However, Verizon & T-Mobile detect hotspot data differently. They detect it via TTL (Time To Live (ipv4)) & HL (Hop Limit (ipv6)), which is something embedded in the data. So, people will modify the TTL/HL on their router/device so the carrier will see that the TTL/HL on the data traffic is "on-device" data and not hotspot data - therefore, there will be no throttle or cap. 

Learn more about TTL/HL and TTL/HL modification here

Depending on what cellular plan you chose (Step 2), some of them have a video throttle (ie. SD video only, and no HD or higher streaming). This can sometimes cause buffering issues when trying to stream video. You can confirm if your plan has a video throttle by using Fast.com. Fast.com is a speed test site that uses Netflix's servers. In effect, the carriers classify that speed test data as video streaming data and will throttle it if the plan has a video throttle. Common video throttle speeds are 1.2 Mbps, 1.5 Mbps, 2.5 Mbps, 3.4 Mbps, and 4.5 Mbps.

Some plans don’t allow HD video streaming at all and some have a feature on the online account that you can turn off video throttle or enable HD streaming. For example, the AT&T $20 Standalone Tablet Plan has the Stream Saver feature that can be turned off in the online account dashboard to avoid the video throttle.

If the plan you use has a video throttle doesn’t have a feature to turn off the video throttle, then a way around that is by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to hide the video data traffic from the carrier. Then the carrier can’t throttle your video streaming. The VPN can be installed on the cellular router (if supported) or installed on the individual device doing the streaming (if supported). Unfortunately, there are some downsides to running VPNs - sometimes unreliable, not all devices are compatible, sometimes there is speed loss and added latency, etc. However, plenty of people have success with the right VPN, the right VPN settings, and the right devices.

Cellular Network Management

Carriers manage the cellular traffic on their networks in a few ways that are relevant to cellular internet users (listed below).

  • Cap
    The Cap is the simplest way that carriers manage their networks. Some plans have a data cap that completely cuts off data access after you use the data amount for that plan.

    For example, if the plan you get is 15GB, then once you use up all 15 GB, the data is cut off until you purchase more data or the plan renews. Also, depending on the plan, sometimes the carrier will not cut off data, but will automatically charge overages if you go over the data cap or automatically add a data package for a fee. There are two types of data caps: Hard Cap and Soft Cap. Hard Cap is what we have been mentioning here: after data allowance is used up, data is cut off. Soft Cap is when, after data allowance is used up, data isn't cut off, but throttled. This leads us to the next point: throttling. 

    *If you have a hotspot data plan, more than likely, it will have a cap and there are no workarounds to get more data. If you have a normal phone or tablet plan that has a data cap (not just a hotspot data cap), there are no workarounds for that either. 

  • Throttle
    Throttling is simply the slowing down of data speeds to a specific speed (ie. 600 Kbps, 128 Kbps, 64 Kbps, etc). It is infamous for being the "fine print" in many past unlimited plans.

    There were a lot of plans (and some still exist) where they promoted unlimited data, and technically they did provide that, but only a certain amount is full speed (ie. 15 GB), then after that is unlimited throttled data - and many times the throttled data is slowed to nearly unusable (ie. 128 Kbps). Some plans are promoted with a data cap (not unlimited), but it is a Soft Cap, so it is throttled after the data allowance is reached. Some plans have permanent throttle from the beginning (ie. Cricket has some plans that are throttled to 8 Mbps - which is decent, but it will not allow any faster). Some plans have no throttle on the regular data usage, but have a permanent hotspot data throttle from the beginning (ie. Visible allows unlimited hotspot data, but throttled at 5 Mbps). Some plans have a video streaming throttle (which may or may not be able to be turned off, depending on the plan), which lowers the data speeds only for video streaming - which means that the video will stream at a lower quality (discussed above in Settings Details).

    *Workarounds are limited for throttles, depending on the type. If it is a permanent throttle on regular data usage, then there are no workarounds. If it is a hotspot data throttle, then the workaround is to mask hotspot data (discussed above in Settings Details). If it is a video streaming throttle that cannot be turned off in your account settings, then the workaround is a VPN. 

  • Deprioritization
    Deprioritization (depri for short) is a network management policy that is a compromise between throttling and carriers still being able to control the available bandwidth. Basically, carriers have a "tiered priority" approach to some plans - which means some plans have a higher priority to data than other plans. If everything is fine with the cellular data traffic on a specific tower, then everyone should get full speeds, no matter the priority of their plan. However, when a cellular tower begins to experience high traffic, the lower priority plans may begin to experience slow downs (not throttling). Not necessarily slow data speeds, but just slower than they would be able to get if the tower wasn't busy (ie. where you might have gotten 50 Mbps, you may now get 20 Mbps). But, it still is possible for someone to experience harsh depri and have barely usable speeds, it just depends. Also, some plans offer a certain amount of "premium" or "prioritized" data, then after that is used up, your plan is lowered on the priority list and possibly could experience depri, when the towers are busy.

    For example, AT&T Postpaid Unlimited Extra plan is the 2nd highest consumer priority plan. It is above Unlimited Starter, but below Unlimited Elite. It also has 50 GB of prioritized data, so when that is used up, it is lowered to the same priority as Unlimited Starter. Which just means that your speeds may slow down some depending on the cell tower traffic (not due to throttling, but due to being lower on the tower's priority list for available bandwidth). However, on AT&T, most people don't even notice the depri, either because it rarely happens or, even when it does, it is still usable speeds. (Of course, this all depends on your specific location and specific currently connected cell tower traffic.) Verizon's depri is usually pretty harsh and many people have noticeable slow downs (depending on plan and location). Learn more about priority levels (QCI) here.

    *There aren't really any Workarounds for depri. The only thing you can do is try to improve cellular signal and/or change cellular bands, in case one cellular band is busy and another one isn't, but that is not always a solution. 

  • Restrictions
    Plan Restrictions is another way carrier manage their network - and there is just a miscellaneous collection of the types of restrictions.

    There are some plans with restrictions on the type of data you can access. For example, some AT&T Business Hotspot plans will not allow you to stream video/entertainment, and is really only for email, web browsing, communication, etc. Some plans have restrictions on how many devices are connected to your phone's hotspot (ie. Visible only allows 1 device connected at a time to some Android phones' hotspot). Some plans come with no hotspot data. Some home internet plans are geo-locked to the registered address. Some plans only allow messaging apps. Each plan is different and there are so many different kinds of restrictions, that you will just need to watch out for them in the fine print of the plan. 

    *Workarounds vary depending on the restriction type. Some are discussed above in Settings Details.

  • Congestion
    Congestion is different from the others in this list because congestion is not a network management policy. However, it is important to understand in the cellular internet world. Congestion just means that the cellular tower is experiencing high cellular traffic. This adversely affects cellular data speeds and deprioritization actively kicks in during this time. However, if the cellular traffic is abnormally heavy, even higher prioritized plans can experience slow downs. In rare situations, the tower may be so overloaded that everyone may even have a hard time connecting to the internet at all. Also, one possible symptom of congestion is if your speed test shows a much higher upload speed than download speed. 

    *Workarounds are basically the same as depri - there are no real workarounds. The only thing you can do is try to improve cellular signal and/or change cellular bands, in case one cellular band is busy and another one isn't, but that is not always a solution. 

Disclaimer:
  • Cellular internet has too many variables to predict with certainty what will work. There are no guarantees. Everything on this site has been complied from multiple resources and is provided for informational purposes only.

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