[E2][R] 5G Celluar Connectivity

A project log for Leti

Can I now make something better than a 2-in-1 laptop? This is a Framework-powered handheld.

kelvinAkelvinA 05/17/2023 at 12:451 Comment

Due to the fact that there hasn't been a device productive enough to use outside, I've never looked into celluar data plans. Now that I'm thinking about Leti, I thought I'd look into the inital and running costs of 4G and 5G connectivity.

Initial Cost

For an integrated system, the modules designed for the Raspbery Pi CM4 seem to be the most ideal due to its small size and internal USB header.

As you can see, the 5G price is around 5X the price of the 4G module. It seems that the price is porportinal in some way to the maximum bandwidth supported. For both, the max 3G speeds are 42 download and 5.7 Mbps upload.

Now, I watched this video:

My takeaways are two things:

Assuming that Leti doesn't fall in a puddle or something, it's probably safe to assume that the celluar modem could be used for 10 years. With that in mind, it sounds like it's better to spend the higher initial cost for 5G and then swap out the board for a USB 3.0 capable one if and when it becomes available. Right now, the averages of all but Three-powered networks are well under the 300Mbps cap:

It'll be higher in specific areas obviously, but those areas are usually city centres and I'm not going to spend all this dev time to (only) stay inside in someone elses building. I'd assume that the large antennas bundled with the 5G modem will get a notably better signal than from a smartphone, due to the laws of physics. Also remember that the 5G modem allows for much faster 4G connection speeds too, which has very high coverage in the UK these days. 100:10 is the best interet I've used daily, so if I could get 300:200 on Celluar, that'll be immense and could help justify the service contract that I talk about below.

Another thing is that the listing is actually the cheapest one for a europe-band module that supported USB3.0 that I could find anyway.

[22 May: Edit 2] I've just found the WS15, a £16.66 USB3.0 module which is probably as small as such a device could ever get. 

The PCB is 67.5 x 30mm and the USB3.0 port sticks out by another 15mm. It also, suprisingly enough, has the schematics in the listing:

From this schematic, I can confirm that I can power the thing from 5V. The listing made that a bit confusing, mentioning that it could run on 3.7 or 4.2 volts.

Moving onto module research, it seems that the RM520N-GL is a suitable alternative to the FM160-EAU. If anything, it's better since it's a global 5G module.

It also turns out that both of these don't support mmWave. That would be a task for the RM510Q-GL:

That strange looking line of ports is actually for 8 mmWave antennas.


Recurring Costs

So, similar to the rumoured kids of today not even knowing about filesystems allegedly because smartphones do away with that complexity, I don't know how much data is actually a good amount of data per month. Do I really need "unlimited" data, or is there a specific data cap that is practically unlimited?

Thankfully, ASDA provided a handy table:

I threw in some higher-than-usual numbers in and I got 32GB a month. Considering that uploads also count, I'd say that 50GB/month is practically unlimited to me. 

Still, some cold hard numbers are much better than guesstimates, so I've downloaded a bandwidth tracking program that was put out in 2009 called BitMeter OS v0.8, since the interface looks modern enough. I should find out what my usage is in a month. If the tracker in Windows 10 didn't suspiciously give me 493mb of usage, I would've just gone with that number instead. It'll be amazing if I really only use 0.5GB of data a month, though I think I've watched more than a combined hour of YouTube in the past month. Thus, I'd like to get a second set of data. I did a speed test on, which downloads an 80MB file for the test and the BitMeter bandwidth tally did increase by 80MB, so the program is likely accurate.

Now, for my actual options. It seems that £10/month is my minimum bound and £18/month is the maximum, at least for just trying things for the first month. It's not like I can get actual data speeds without buying the hardware and picking a carrier. Anyway, I set my search to >=40GB/month on a 1 month contract and the lowest is £10 and the cheapest unlimited is £18 from ID mobile.

This is... way cheaper than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was like £30 for 50GB or something. 0.037 pence per working-hour (9hr/day) to allow me to actually study/work in the wide outdoors? That seems great.

I'm suspicious of these "hidden offers" though, like I'd imagine I'd buy the first month fine but then I can't buy the same price the next month or something. Or, more likely, you get to keep the deal up until you cancel and then have to go with a worse option if you renew. Even when it doesn't say "hidden offer", I can only find the 50GB deal for £10/month, not 60. Well 75GB is only an additional £2 a month so it's probably not too much of an issue.

iDmobile uses the 3 network, so it's already looking like a good option. Then there's SMARTY, which is actually owned by Three yet undercuts them massively for some reason:

Another good sign is that SMARTY's prices are visible on their site, and surely 200GB is practically unlimited for most of the population, no?

I also like the look of their website, which hopefully translates to their dashboard experience.

I'm reading the trustpilot reviews, and talkmobile certainly has the most glowing ones, followed by SMARTY which is aight and iD's has a few too many instances of "debt collectors" in the reviews to be an anomoly, so I will avoid them for now.

The non-hidden talkmobile offer is only £1 more a month, though it sounds like these cariers usually take the bill at the end of the 30 days instead of at the start (like SMARTY) for some mysterious reason. That must be the reason why comparison websites are saying that it's possible to cancel with 30 days notice. Sounds like you'd be locked into at least 2 months if you don't cancel same-day with that kind of notice. The contracts are done via direct debit, apparently. 

I heard about this, but I didn't know that there were actually carriers in the UK turning off 3G networks. Since I'm only in this for the data, only the 4G and 5G networks are relevant for this use case.

Now, for some mysterious reason, there's "data only" sim cards that cost more than the full bundle stuff:

Unlimited is the only one that doesn't change price (You need to use the phone plan for 12 months consecutively to get the 10% off promotion). It got asked 6 years ago and, allegedly, Three does checks to make sure phone sims run in phones.

Conviniently, someone actually wrote about the reason behind data sims when SMARTY launched their data plans:

However, this is just a hypothesis and the commentors of the time were still wondering if this is really the case. Somewhat ironic that many sources say that "they're straightforward and so you know exactly what you're getting" and then this curveball appears. The webpages on the 100GB offerings seem IDENTICAL on paper other than the one with unlimited text/minutes costs £5/mo less.

Somone asked on their fourms and... they said "The call plans are cheaper, as to meet the market rate". Perhaps the data sims are just for the old school people that MUST have a sim that's "data only" so that them 5G towers don't infect their thinkpads with infinity minutes?

So I believe my smart an inescapable expectation is a recurring fee of up to £144. I say up-to, as you can even pause SMARTY renewals for up to 6 months. 


Considering that the 5G modem without the USB adapter PCB (valued at £16) is also £144, this all sounds quite coincidental. 

£144 initial cost for the modem, £144 recurring annually.

Expected cost of Leti if I saw it on Amazon, ebay or AliExpress: £1049 WiFi, £1199 WiFi+5G. Not great in the handheld industry, but a decent value in the portable computing industry.

[20 May: Edit 1]

So I was still trying to track down the mystery as to why data sims cost more than phone sims, and I heard of a company called scancom which actually sells an entire contract as one lump sum, simular to SMARTY but it lasts 12 or 24 months. And look:

500GB/month for 2 years. That's an average allocation of 16.6GB of bandwidth every day, and tracking shows that 10GB in a single day is my current record! There's even a 400GB one for £30 less and it seems that this one isn't at risk of going out of stock.

This would be an average of 13.3GB of daily bandwidth. This solution practically means that I'm -£290 on the setup and then I've got free internet everywhere for 2 years! Still though, it's possible that my usage requirements could change in those two years. I doubt it, but it's possible. Daijobu because there's apparently a limited edition 750GB/month version actually even got 5 extra months tacked on:

The 400GB is £5.16/mo and the 750 is £5.64/mo. I think my choice is obvious. 

These prices though... never thought that would be possible to get basically-unlimited for £6 a month.

Bands supported by Three: 


kelvinA wrote 05/18/2023 at 21:31 point

Nope... couldn't find anythnig cheaper than the FM160-EAU kit listing, even if sold just by itself. 

It seems that the 5G module both has to support my region (Europe) and have a USB protocol to be compatible with these celluar->USB PCBs for a solution to exist. 

Any 3.0 solution would have to be a seperate purchase. 

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