Cellular routers and data plans - help!

If you have bought a new LTE or 5G router and are having challenges getting a US cellular data plan to work with the router or just want some advice on which data plan to get, then this article is for you.

Having now sold hundreds of LTE and 5G routers, one of the biggest support inquires we get is how to make the router work on a particular carrier or cell plan. Calling the carrier often results in getting incorrect information or being told the router will not work with a particular plan – even if that is not true. We have learned a few tricks to get these devices to work with each of the major US carriers. Before diving into those tips, it is worth reviewing which consumer plans are proving to be most popular with customers. Business customers often have access to other data plans. Business plans are not covered in this article.

Popular US consumer data plans for LTE and 5G routers.

Each of the big three US carriers have data plans tuned for use with third-party routers such as ones from Peplink. These plans are constantly changing so it is worth doing your own research before committing to a plan. The recommendations below are just some of the plans that might be available to you and of course there are other carriers and MVNOs that have their own plans. Some of these are prepay / pay-as-you go plans that are month-to-month and involve no long-term contracts. You pay for a month’s use in advance, and you are typically free to cancel these plans anytime. Other plans are known as post-pay plans that are billed each month and are often offered to existing customers who already use the carrier for cell phone coverage. Most plans are grandfathered so if you sign up for the plan, it is usually available to you as long as you keep paying for the service.

All of the plans mentioned below have been tested with Peplink routers and are known to work.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile broke new ground with a 100GB per month for $50 plan in 2020 but this plan is no longer available and has been replaced by a 50GB for $50 per month plan. While the other carriers have plans that might offer more data per dollars spent, we typically find T-Mobile has the best coverage and speeds when using Peplink and other routers. T-Mobile is especially good with 5G routers – or at least that’s our experience here in the Pacific Northwest. I suspect the 100GB plan will be offered again at some point and if it is, consider signing up and locking in the plan. Note, T-Mobile does not have their own data coverage in Alaska. AT&T is a better bet for Alaska cruising based on feedback from customers.

All major Peplink router products are certified on T-Mobile. More information is here.

Verizon

Verizon launched a new set of tiered plans in 2021 that includes 150GB for $80-110 per month with prices dependent on whether you are an existing customer with phone service or not. Verizon coverage and speeds are ok but not great in our experience. Most of the Peplink router products are certified on Verizon including as of February 2022 the new MAX BR1 Pro 5G

More information on supported Verizon devices can be found here.

AT&T

AT&T surprised us in 2021 by offering a 100GB for $55 per month prepay plan. However AT&T has recently changed the pricing for its plans and now $55 only gets you 50GB per month. There is still an option for 100GB per month but it is now $90. In our experience, AT&T has decent coverage and speeds although not as good as T-Mobile but better than Verizon. 5G coverage is still very spotty and even if you connect on 5G, speeds are no better than 4G speeds. All of the popular Peplink router products work and are certified on AT&T. 

More information on supported models is here.

Google Fi

While Google Fi is not considered a mainstream carrier, it does have some interesting advantages when it comes to finding a data plan for your router. Google is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) and uses T-Mobile as the carrier for its data-only plans - including working on T-Mobile's 5G network. You can sign up for a phone plan on the Flexible Plan that works anywhere in the world for $20 per month and then get up to four data-only SIM cards for free. When you use data on Google Fi, you are only charged for actual data used each month across all devices. At $10 per gigabyte, the cost is not the cheapest but it is capped at $60 maximum per month. Note there is a cap on the amount of high speed data that can be used each month. Google also has an Unlimited Plus plan that has higher data limits and also works internationally. Google recently lowered the price for this plan to $65 for one line which includes 50GB of data that can be shared with data devices such as routers.

So why would you want to use this plan? The big attraction of Google Fi is there is no surcharge for using data outside of the US. This means you can travel to any other country and use your router and not have to pay more than what you would pay for data in the US. It is also one of the easiest plans to sign up for and ordering extra data-only SIMs is easy and again, you can get these at no charge. I have used Google Fi SIMs in many different types of data-only devices (e.g. Peplink routers, iPads, PCs with SIM slots, hotspots) in many countries and it always works. You just need to be sure to set the APN to "h2g2" on your device. One other note. I have heard that a) you must sign up for your Google Fi plan in the US and b) you can't install your SIM and only use it in another country. The plan is designed for primary use in the US and occasional use in other countries. So this is a good plan to have as a backup when other plans do not work, other data plans are too expensive or you want to travel to multiple countries and not worry about swapping out SIMs or incurring roaming charges.

Since Google Fi runs on T-Mobile's network, we have not seen any compatibility issues or rejected IMEI issues.

Plans for use outside the USA

As we get feedback from customers who are using routers outside the US, I will update this article with what we have learned. If you are using a US carrier plan outside of the US, be sure to check their roaming policies and prices before you leave the US. Also check out the articles on the Mobile Internet Resource Center related to options and plans for countries outside the US. I high recommend becoming a Premium Member with these folks which will give you access to lots of valuable content.

For customers going to the Bahamas, Mr. Sim Card has been helpful in getting a data plan setup for Peplink routers.


Tips for signing up for your plan

Here are some additional tips to keep in mind as you attempt to sign up for your chosen plan:

  • Don’t believe carrier sales reps: Every day I get calls from customers who have had a horrible experience working with carrier sales reps in stores or on the phone. Most reps have no clue what a router is or if they do, they will insist you buy a router from them. If possible, try to sign up with the carrier online or with minimal sales rep interaction. Arm yourself with a printout of the plan page from the carrier’s site and if necessary, print out the page from the carrier’s site showing your device is supported.
  • 4G vs. 5G SIM cards: Some people will tell you a 4G LTE SIM card will not work in a 5G device and vice versa. In my experience this is not true. I have tried multiple combinations and have not seen this to be an issue. That said, some cell plans associated with an existing 4G SIM card may not allow a 5G connection due to a carrier plan restriction. Just be sure your new plan supports 5G if you plan on using a 5G device.
  • Don’t be tempted by a bundled hotspot – unless of course that’s the device you want: All of the carriers have special deals where you can get a router data plan bundled with a hotspot device. If you decide to go that way, keep in mind the plan is often locked to that device – you can’t remove the SIM and put it in another router device. The device itself is a locked device and can’t be used on other carriers – for example if you travel to another country and want to use a local SIM. Many of these plans do not allowing roaming or if they do it is limited or expensive. Finally, many hotspot devices have limited capabilities to add external antennas which may be key to getting extended range in remote areas.
  • Make sure you get a data plan designed for routers: Typically, you cannot sign up for a cell phone or tablet plan and use the provided SIM in a router or hotspot device. That is not always the case but check with the carrier to be sure. My Verizon iPad plan SIM worked fine in a router but my Sprint SIM that I use my Windows ARM PC does not work in any other device.
  • Consider adding a data plan to an existing cell plan account: If you have an existing cell phone plan with a carrier, check to see if you can add a data-only device to the plan. In some cases, you may be able to use a shared data plan for a very inexpensive price. I added a device data plan SIM to my existing Verizon shared data cell phone plan for $10 a month.
  • Check your IMEI: As mentioned above, all cellular devices have a unique IMEI number which identifies the device modem and its unique ID. Most carriers allow you to check if your device is supported before you sign up. If it passes the test, you are usually home free. If it fails the check but you know the device is supported, you may need to call the carrier’s tech support group. Your IMEI number can be found on the router label or by using the web admin for Peplink devices.
  • Check your coverage: Be sure you new plan has good coverage in your home area and in the places you want to visit. The carriers have coverage maps but they are often not very accurate. Check with third party sources such as cellmapper.net or get a third party app such as Coverage?. Also note, some carriers do domestic roaming in areas where they don't have their own towers. For example, T-Mobile roams on other carriers in Alaska. Check you plan to see if it covers domestic roaming for data. T-Mobile for example only includes 200MB of data while roaming each data cycle.
  • International roaming: If you plan on using your data device outside the US, be sure you understand what the carrier’s policy and charges are for use in other countries. Some plans have no roaming. Some have very little data per day or month included with the plan. Some have very expensive surcharges for every megabyte consumed abroad. Be sure to find out exactly what is covered before you leave the US. I have a Google Fi SIM that I use sparingly in the US but is currently my go to plan outside the US since they do not impose a surcharge for international use beyond their normal data rate. The other option of course is to get a data plan with a local carrier in the country you are visiting. If you are in another country and want to roam, be sure the "Data Roaming" option is checked in your Cellular Settings.
  • SIM card size: Check to see what size SIM card your new router takes and be sure the SIM card you get with your new plan is the same size. Many Peplink routers, for example, require a larger Mini-SIM or 2FF size and sometimes known as a Standard SIM. Some devices such as the new MAX BR1 Pro 5G use a Nano-SIM or size 4FF. Most carriers ship a SIM card in a multi-size punch out card that allows you to push out the correct size SIM card. If you have an existing SIM card that is too small (e.g. a Nano-SIM) then you can purchase a SIM card size adapter to turn it into the size you need. If you have a SIM card that is too big for your new router, then you will need to get a different SIM from the carrier.


Tips for getting your new plan and SIM card working with your router

In some cases, getting you device online is as simple as putting the new SIM card in the device and turning it on. In many cases the device will self-configure and join the cellular network automatically.

If your device does not automatically join the network or it spins away with some type of message that it can’t connect, there are some steps you can take to get it working.

Use the correct APN

The first thing is to make sure use are using the correct APN. On Peplink routers, connect to the device’s web admin page (usually 192.168.50.1), login into the device (look on the bottom label on the device for login info), look for the “Cellular” row and click on “Details” on the right. Scroll down to the “Cellular Settings” section and look at what is being used as the APN. You will want to check that the APN is correct and if not manually change it. 

The APNs we have found to work are as follows:

 CARRIER APN COMMENT
 T-Mobile fast.t-mobile.com Usually set automatically
 AT&T Broadband Almost always needs to be set manually
 Verizon vzwinternet Usually set automatically
 Google Fi h2g2 Must be set manually


If you have APNs from other carriers, let us know in the comments section and we’ll add it to this list.

If you are using a 5G router, sometimes it also helps to establish the initial connection by forcing the modem to connect using “LTE Only” mode. Once you establish your device on the network, then you can usually set it back to “Auto”. That said, I usually set my BR1 Pro 5G in “LTE Only” mode while cruising and put it in “Auto” mode when I am on a dock with a strong 5G signal – otherwise the modem might get “stuck” constantly hunting for a good 5G signal.

On some LTE routers, you can make a selection that associates a connection with a particular carrier. Doing that for your carrier often helps to establish the connection.

Note that it can take several minutes to establish the initial connection.

IMEI registration

If your router still does not connect, check to make sure your router IMEI is registered with the carrier. Usually this is done when you sign up for your new plan and SIM, but in some cases, you may need to do this after you receive your SIM. Sometimes this is done via an online web form associated with your online account. In other cases, you may need to call the carrier tech support and ask them to associate your IMEI with your new plan and SIM card. Be sure to allow a couple of hours for the new IMEI registration to get established in the carrier’s systems.

Be sure you have a supported data plan

As mentioned above, not all plans are designed to work with a router or hotspot device. Check with the carrier if in doubt.

Coverage

It goes without saying, but be sure you are in an area where you would expect to get a signal from the carrier. Also be sure you have attached the cellular antennas to your router and place the router in a location where it is likely to get a decent signal.

Summary

The information provided in this article is based on personal experiences as well as customer experiences and feedback. If you have a different experience, let us know. Also, be sure to check out the Peplink forum for information and solutions shared by other mobility customers. Other sites such as SeaBits and the Mobile Internet Resource Center have lots of info as well. In particular, check out Steve Mitchell's article "Finding a cellular data plan for your boat". 

Finally, if you have a question or suggestion, please either contact us or use our comment section below.

Safe travels

 

Doug Miller

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