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Documenting my attempts to replace VDSL home broadband with a 5GEE router

TL;DR: I bought a 5GEE router from EE in the UK on a business contract. I returned it within the 14-day “cool-off” period as, despite dramatically-improved download and upload speeds, there were issues with it that affected online gaming. The user guide doesn’t seem to be online anywhere, so I’ve hosted it here.

5GEE router (front and rear view)

Context

A friend of mine who lives in the south of England is currently moving house. His new place has access to a full fibre connection, which is not only ridiculously fast but also ridiculously cheap. I live in a market town in the north-east of England, which seems to be the land that time forgot in terms of fibre broadband rollout. While he’s experiencing symmetrical 900Mbps speeds and a ping of 3ms, I’m getting 42Mbps downloads, 16Mbps upload, and a ping of 16ms. This is important, as we’re part of a group of friends who play PlayStation together online regularly. It’s competitive advantage territory 😂

As a result, and because I’m always looking at these kinds of things anyway, I re-evaluated my options. The ISP I’m with, Andrews & Arnold, are absolutely excellent but can only offer me the infrastructure rolled out by Openreach. They could offer me a second line, bonded to my existing one, but this would double my cost while not-quite doubling my speed. I’m already paying £56/month (including VoIP charges) so that seemed like… a lot for not much improvement?

So I investigated Starlink which looked OK, but potentially not that reliable with expensive setup costs. I also looked at 5G networks and was more than a little excited to find that EE’s “5G indoor and outdoor” coverage checker put our row of houses right on the edge of their availability. So went into my local EE shop to double-check. In the end, the friendly and obliging store manager literally walked the few hundred metres up the road from the shop to my house to confirm that I could indeed get EE 5G at my property. I immediately ordered a 5GEE router on a 24-month business contract, working out at £35 + VAT per month.

I live in a three-storey house, as we’ve converted the loft. My wife’s office is up there, while my office is in the converted garage out the back which is separate to the house. Getting a fast wifi connection both up and out is challenging, but our Netgear Orbi system with the router and three satellites seems to cope.

Initial findings

I thought my wife’s office in the loft would be a good place to connect and test the 5GEE router. I have to say that I was absolutely blown away by the speeds after I plugged it in and the blue 5G connection lights lit up. It was providing over 200Mbps down, and over 60Mbps up, with a ping of around 33ms. Happy Doug was happy.

Having done some research into directional antennas, I got a bit greedy and wondered what would happen if I connected one of those to the router? Could I double those numbers? I ordered a Bluespot 4G/5G directional antenna from Amazon, because they’re so good at no-questions-asked returns.

I thought I knew where the 5G mast was, but when it arrived, connecting the antenna it didn’t seem to make much difference. In fact, it actually seemed to make things worse. There was a note in the box to get in touch with Bluespot for a free virtual site survey, so I fired off an email with the relevant details. The information that came back was excellent, and revealed that there’s a mast around 200 metres from my house that I didn’t know about, and then another one across the other side of the ‘valley’. I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems like the closer one is 4G-only. Either way, I couldn’t really get a better connection with the external antenna compared to the internal antennas, even when I bought some splitter cables.

Frustrations

I must have read pretty much every forum thread that mentions the 5GEE router. I’m reasonably technical in general sense, but I’m by no means an expert at networking. So I’ve spent a lot of time piecing together information between forum posts, calling EE, and experimenting with the device itself. My daughter called it a “part-time job”.

During my investigations, I found that:

  • The 5GEE router provided by EE seems to be a rebadged Zyxel NR5103. Sadly, this is a new and not-very-well-documented bit of kit. EE’s interface, while simple to use, feels a bit ‘Fisher Price’ compared to interfaces on other devices.
  • Mobile providers like EE use something called Carrier-grade NAT (or CGNAT). Without getting into the details, this effectively means that you’re always going to be in a ‘double-NAT’ situation with your home network. Game consoles do not like this at all for multiplayer games, and it can prevent you joining groups, lobbies, teams, etc.
  • While there is a way around CGNAT by using something like L2TP it adds cost, complexity, and latency to the situation. Given that the ping was already not really OK for gaming, this wasn’t an option for me.
  • Weather affects all kinds of internet connections in different ways and at different times, but mobile connections are obviously more prone to this than physical connections. When it got windy, or overcast, the 5GEE router would silently switch to 4G. Presumably this meant the closer mast. While the speeds weren’t bad, the ping wasn’t any better, and if I wanted 4G I’d pay a lot less for it!
  • I thought about binding together the 5G connection with the VDSL connection, but decided against investigating this further for two reasons. First, the different latencies can apparently cause issues with all but the most expensive/complicated equipment. Second, it would increase the cost again. You can connect a VDSL model to the WAN port of the 5GEE router, but this merely acts as (an expensive) backup to the 4G/5G connection if there was no mobile signal at all.

In closing, I came a lot of very helpful people and some great websites. The EE community forums contain such as wealth of knowledge that EE staff themselves refer to them! The ISPreview UK forums are more generally useful for context, too. I didn’t use Router Mods but I can imagine that if a mobile connection is your only viable option, investing in their kit might be an idea. And of course, Andrews & Arnold my current ISP whose live chat function gets you directly to people who aren’t scared to get technical.

At the time of writing, despite advertising it on their website, EE flat out refused to come and try and fit an external aerial to my property. They told me the ones they have are 4G-only. Based on what I’ve read from other customers, I don’t think this is true, but I called them four times and they gave me the same answer.

Final thoughts

I’ve learned a lot from this experience, so although it could be classed as a ‘failed experiment’ I’ve gained knowledge which will stand me in good stead:

  1. I know what to look out for in terms of improving the speed of my home network and in the future kit I might buy to improve it.
  2. The speed of 4G+ connections was surprising to me. To the extent that I wonder if most people actually need a ‘5G’ connection right now for most purposes?
  3. We really need the whole internet to switch to IPv6 addresses, as that’s going to solve a whole lot of problems caused by us running out of IPv4 addresses (which is the main reason for the CGNAT issues mentioned above!)

If you’re not a gamer, I wonder whether buying a (unlocked) 4G router with an unlimited data SIM might be a better investment?

This isn’t a forum, and I’ve written down everything I can remember that’s relevant about what I learned during this experience. So I’m closing comments here, but feel free to ask me stuff on the Fediverse (@dajbelshaw@nullfosstodon.org) and I’ll see if I can help.

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