In my search for decent 4g modems – that is – to use a 4G LTE signal instead of broadband in areas like ours where fibre Internet isn’t practical, I’ve tried everything from a cheap AliExpress 4G modem (no good) through GL-iNET routers to the TP-Link MR600 V2 then V3 (the V3 refers to hardware version) – no complaints… but recently I could not help myself when a modem appeared on Wallapop (here in Spain, eBay is utter rubbish and I’m told the Spanish use the Wallapop site far more frequently) – so I figured it was time to give it a shot.
Why 4G and not 5G? There are no 5G masts anywhere near our rural area and likely won’t be for some time – so why pay for something you can’t use. We do however have reliable 4G+ LTE.
I live inland in the Southeast of Spain and I noted someone over in Rio Tinto (West of Spain) selling the ZTE MF286D CAT6 LTE modem second-hand (as new) on Wallapop at a reasonable price. I started reading reviews which were mostly positive and so made the purchase and then the box arrived – all looking pretty new and originally packed. See the blue tab over the indicator window – THAT new.
Here it is…. well, it’s certainly not a new design as there is facility for a full-size SIM (as against micro or nano). On opening the box I found the modem/router, EU 220v power supply, instructions (unfortunately in Italian only – but read on) and a spare SIM – I guessed the SIM would not be a lot of use.
As you’ll see below – the full-size SIM slot is on the side and the various sockets on the back.
I found this manual – PDF format – mostly NOT in English – but from page 45 to 67 there is quick-start info in English. Interestingly, no Chinese text even though ZTE are based here –
No giveaways here, they could simply have decided to use the full size socket as pretty much all SIMS come with adaptors.
On the other hand, the USB 2 socket (USB-A) is for “factory use only” i.e. hacking. 🙂
What I was and am mainly interested in is.. what kind of 4G signal does this modem/router pull in? The ZTE MF286D modem can handle external antennae. I stuck with the standard internal antenna. Standard connections.
I found this manual – PDF format – mostly NOT in English – but from page 45 to 67 there is quick-start info in English. Interestingly, no Chinese text even though ZTE are based here – ZTE Corporation, 55 High-Tech Road South, Shenzhen, China. It also seems that THREE in the UK sell this router – so they have their own info – AH, better… ZTE have their own PDF manual – well, you may as well have both..
On the TOP of the modem is the all-important RESET hole. The MF286D has a WAN/LAN1 input as well as 3 LAN-only connectors. There are also 2 standard connectors for phones but I’m not intending to use these. Also I can’t find any setting to make that connector WAN/LAN1 switch from WAN to LAN and vice-versa – but read on.
At this point, still having no clue how to use the router. I plugged a lead from my network into the WAN lead on the modem, applied mains power and flicked the on-off switch to ON.
I waited a minute and on the front, very pretty lights appeared, red for 3G/4G, blue for WiFi and blue for power. Full specs here.
I checked on my phone WiFi and a new access point appeared – TIM_2vC68M. I looked at the underside of the router and found the default WiFi password. The phone connected to the router with no external Internet.
The address of the router appeared on my phone – interestingly as 192.168.0.1 – interesting as the manual suggests 192.168.100.1 – (my own network is 192.168.1.x) then I logged into the admin area which immediately griped about no 3G/4G signal but then proceeded to show the admin page.
My first thoughts – as the modem has a WAN input – why isn’t it connecting to the Internet using my main network? The mobile interface seemed hopeless at going any further so I took a chance and selected PC interface and noted the “advanced” setup.
Copyright 1998-2021 – so I’m guessing the last updates were done in 2021, I could also not find, no matter how hard I tried – how to get the router to connect to the Internet using the WAN input – read on.
But first: the SIM. I put my Digi SIM from my phone into the powered-off router – using the original adaptors that came with the SIM (and a little Sellotape on the back to be safe – I didn’t want to end up with a nano-sim buried inside the router.
My first thoughts were – as this router did not at first sight not appear to have setup for different 4G access points, how would it know what to connect to. I needn’t have worried- a minute after applying power to the router, I once again connected my by now SIM-less phone to the MF286D’s WiFi access point and I got a connection. SpeedTest.net said 53Mbps download, 31Mbps upload. As I’d positioned the router arbitrarily on my desk I figured the next step would be to position it next to my then normal TP-Link 4G router – trying them one at a time and comparing SpeedTest results on my hardwired PC. As it turns out – there IS a full setup for different 4G providers but I didn’t need any of it.
So, first off, the Windows 11 PC – wired – and Speedtest using the SpeedTest.net “App”… using my DIGI SIM (Orange mast across the village) using my original TP-Link 4G router – 72Mbps down, 16.8 up and repeated: 79.6Mbps down, 18.2 up.
Now switching to the new MF286D modem/router – same SIM – PC – wired – 115.5Mbps down, 42.7 up and repeated: 121.23Mbps down, 44.3 up. Wireless – 117Mbps down, 46Mbps up. Once again: 103Mbps down, 46.6 up.
So the design seemed only to have 2.4Ghz WiFi until I went into the PC web interface to discover not only 5Ghz but also guest networks which are turned off by default and which don’t show on on the mobile interface. For whatever reason, WAN IN didn’t want to know – on the other hand the ZTE seems (and this is the point) CONSISTENTLY even better at pulling in 4G LTE than my previously best TP-link MR600 V3 (absolutely identical positioning indoors – outside-facing wall corner – 2m height) – and that is MOST important. In my case, I feed the output of the 4G router into my main router (which has WiFi6 and all sorts of bells and whistles) and take it from there.
Next – just for the sake of it, I figured out how to change the WIFI AP and passwords on this device. Wait for it – you can change the AP and password on the phone interface or the PC WEB interface. This is of interest only – the point of this unit is to do a good job of pulling in 4G.
Now off looking for SSH access because I could 🙂 Meanwhile an hour later….
And that speed is not just coming off the 4G modem – by now it has been passed through my main router to the hardwired PC. Given that where I am, I get truly unlimited 4G for €25 a month, I’ll settle for this speed which is slower than Starlink or decent fibre – but I can’t get fibre here and this works out at a fraction of Starlink prices (not to mention the Starlink base unit coming with only WiFi output and needing their adaptor to get a wired connection to, say a PC or NAS.
The speeds show above vary at different times – in common with all mobile signals. The next morning I could barely get half of the first night’s figures and of course will vary with distance from the nearest mast. I also find the positioning of the router to be quite critical. Just on a whim I turned off the router for a couple of minutes then back on. 9:30am I did the speed tests again on my PC:
I finally changed the access point names and passwords to something unique (and more memorable) to me. My model does not have an internal battery…. and does have Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Add a spot of USB load-sharing
Before I leave this subject… you’ve seen the benchmarks – well, the 4G+ LTE router like it’s predecessor feeds into my main GL-iNET FLINT router (my choice – not essential) which has just seen a firmware update in the past few days. Anyway, my Android phone has “USB HotSpot” set on by default – and so I then plugged that into the FLINT which again by default (as I set it that way) has USB Tethering turned on – and MULTI-WAN set to load-balance – all of which does nothing unless the phone is plugged into FLINT… and the somewhat exciting (for me) result…
If you’re on fibre this may not seem like life-changing news – but trust me – out in the wilds….
Ok, mid-afternoon – modem+phone….(I have truly unlimited data on one – 70GB/month on the other – grand total for both – €34 a month).
24 hours later for a pal, I just replicated that speed.
Next challenge (ideas please) – a USB to USB-C quality lead with an extra USB connector at the USB end so I can use a decent QC3 charger while having the phone plugged into the router…
One last thing – back in 2021, I wrote about some low-cost SIMs.. 1NCE – you paid for them once and they would give you so much 4G data – not on a monthly basis – forever – but only a fixed amount for the whole duration (hence really only suitable for short messages and IOT).
I’ve had a few lying around in a drawer since I wrote the article – and I plugged one into this modem – and it worked IMMEDIATELY – BBC website no problem. I imagine as that as the BBC site uses way more data than typical IOT, the SIM wouldn’t last long – but handy for testing. Just one more bit of proof that with this modem, no setup is needed for the SIM (at least on the two SIMs I’ve tested).
October 29, 2023 – Medium-Term Testing
The new router has been in use for a month now and early on I set a timer on my PC to restart the router once in the early hours of the morning just to keep speed to a maximum and a couple of days ago I ran SpeedTest (3 times in a row) throughout the day and on each occasion achieved over 120Mbps download and 50-60Mbps upload with pings averaging 33ms.. More than happy. Having used the TP-Link MR600v3 for months I still stand by that and the TPLink MR600v2 – but the ZTE is without a doubt slightly faster on average at least in my case.