If you have fast internet in the US, it’s probably because you live in the right part of a major city. The rest of us get, well … this WIRED headline from 2007 sums is up nicely: “Rural America Will Never Get Fast Internet.” Out here, we get the scraps. These days, with 3G mostly shut down, that’s either nothing or, if you’re lucky, like me, 4G service.
Rural 4G service is essentially your phone plan, except you have to use it for everything. It’s always metered (Google Fi offers 50 gigabytes a month “unlimited,” which is what I’ve been using lately.) It’s usually slow, relative to something like the cable or fiber internet available elsewhere.
One thing I’ve found can really squeeze a bit more out of these shoddy connections is a good 4G modem. I’ve tested half a dozen now and am working on a guide, but Gl.inet’s Spitz 4G LTE router is one the best. At under $200, it’s relatively affordable.
Alone With a Phone
In rural South Carolina, many of my neighbors just get by with their phones, either as their primary computing device or by using it as a hot spot. The phone-as-hot-spot works, and for some it may work well enough, but in my case my phone doesn’t get much reception indoors. I’ve come to rely on 4G routers, which usually have larger antennas and get better reception.
Gl.inet’s Spitz 4G router looks like many other routers in our guide, albeit smaller. It’s not until you open it up and find the SIM card slot that you’d even know it was a 4G router. There’s also a spot for a microSD card (up to 128 gigabytes) so you can use it as a media server if you like. The slot fits a micro SIM.
I tested the Spitz using a variety of SIM cards from different carriers and MVNOs (which you’ll need, if you’re serious about having connectivity out here in the sticks). I initially tested using a T-Mobile SIM and an AT&T SIM, but also got it to work with a Google Fi nano SIM by carefully aligning it in the slot. I don’t recommend this long term, but it works while you’re waiting for your SIM card adapter kit ($4) to arrive, which you will need to use a Google Fi or other nano-size SIM chip. Gl.inet has a guide to setting up Google Fi on the Spitz.
The included LTE antennas manage to pick up signal that my phone can’t, but it would be nice to have some MIMO ports to connect an external MIMO antenna. Otherwise, though, the hardware is simple and small. There are five LEDs on the top showing power status, WAN connection, 2.4-Ghz, and 5-Ghz activity and LTE connection status. On the back is a power supply port, as well as a LAN and WAN sockets for wired networking.
Once you’ve got your SIM card inserted, you connect to the Wi-Fi network and point your web browser to the Spitz admin page. This is a big part of what makes the Spitz very powerful. Behind the scenes, Spitz uses the open source OpenWRT modem firmware, which allows you to use some tools and access features normally found only on much more expensive routers, like network-wide VPN access, ad-blocking, parental controls, time-based controls, and much more.
Gl.inet uses a custom skin, so if you’re familiar with OpenWRT, what you get with the Spitz will be slightly different. All the features are there—and you can install anything extra you want—but things might be in slightly different places than you’re used to.