Surf the Web — even when your ISP is down

From the February 8th version of the AskWoody Newsletter

Brian Livingston

By Brian Livingston

It’s a well-known subset of Murphy’s Law: Your Internet service provider will go down at the worst possible time for you.

When my ISP goes dark, whatever boat I was trying to float becomes pretty much dead in the water. On occasions like this, my usually sympathetic friends become singularly unhelpful: “Just go outside and take a walk for a while.”

But if you’re hosting a video conference, moderating a hot stock-tips forum, or preparing a report for presentation to your board in an hour, your participants aren’t going to accept excuses such as, “I decided to take a walk instead.”

In my service area, my cable ISP goes down for an hour or so every couple of months. I’m sure there are good reasons for this — someone’s backhoe dug into a cable vault or something — but Murphy’s Law bites me right in the ass at that moment.

A lot of us work at home these days. A loss of Internet access, wherever you may be, can bring your productivity to a screeching halt. But you can ensure continuous service with a Wi-Fi router that switches automatically from your primary provider to a secondary one.

The ability to “fail over” to a backup provider used to be limited to very expensive business-class routers. But new, sophisticated devices now offer lower costs that dip into the price range of simple routers. Read on.

Wi-Fi routers: Oh, Lord, the troubles I’ve seen

In my two previous columns — January 25 and February 1 — I described some of the issues with cheap Wi-Fi routers (often called consumer-grade routers). Today, I want to list some other problems that affect your ability to keep your Internet access up at all times:

  • Your router allows only one Internet connection. Most cheap routers connect to no more than one Internet service provider, whether it’s cable, DSL, satellite, fiber optic, or snail mail. (Just kidding on that last one.)

    If your primary provider goes dark for a few hours, a consumer-grade router has no way to switch to another form of Internet access that may still be up.

  • Router makers have no economic incentive to patch known flaws. To keep costs down, most ISPs give their subscribers the least expensive equipment possible. If you buy your own router from a big-box store, you’re likely to be sold a low-end device that offers no ongoing service plan. Routers are just computers with a specialized function, but they don’t get patches every month — or even every year.

    New vulnerabilities are discovered every week. But according to a September 2020 examination by Daniel Aleksandersen, a Norwegian software developer, not a single popular router model he checked had received a firmware update in ages. (The most recent revision of any model was 14 months old.) Once you’ve bought a cheap router, the maker receives no subscription fees, so its firmware tends to get set in stone.

  • Terrible known flaws let hackers into your system. More than 120 consumer-grade routers were tested in a June 2020 report by the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany. The makers whose models were examined include Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, Asus, AVM, TP-Link, and Zyxel.

    The researchers used an open-source tool to probe each router’s firmware. The “best” devices were found to have 21 critical and 348 serious vulnerabilities. The average device left 53 critical attack routes unpatched. Hackers can easily find these “back doors” to get into your network, using your routers for bot armies and other nastiness. Read the report (PDF).

To find routers that give you continuous Internet access when your primary ISP is down — and also to keep patches current to protect you from old and new hacker attacks — we must broaden our horizons to consider small office/home office (SOHO) routers.

Routers that keep you working when your ISP goes down

In my February 1 column, I quoted security expert Michael Horowitz, a Computerworld blogger for eight years, who recommends Peplink Wi-Fi routers. For not much more dinero than some consumer-grade routers, Peplink devices keep you running on a second provider when your primary ISP goes down.

The Pepwave Surf SOHO router (Figure 1) connects to your primary ISP using a standard Ethernet port. But it also contains a USB port for backup Internet access. Into that port, you can plug a thumb-sized dongle that obtains a 4G or 5G cellular signal from your favorite cellular company. The dongle contains its own SIM card; the SIM’s cellular provider will charge you a monthly service fee. But this fee is likely to be less than the one you pay for your phone if both devices use the same carrier.

Peplink Surf SOHO
Figure 1. The Pepwave Surf SOHO router includes a USB port that can be used for a second WAN.

In Peplink’s entry-level Surf SOHO, your primary ISP and your cellular service are not both operational at the same time. Instead, the router monitors your primary signal and automatically switches to the USB port only when necessary.

In a telephone interview, I asked Keith Chau, Peplink’s general manager, how long the switchover usually takes. The user can configure this, he replied. “If I set it to check every 5 seconds, and switch over if 3 consecutive checks fail, it can take 15 seconds,” he said. You might have to sign in again to some websites, but you’d be back to work in less than a minute.

Why wouldn’t I configure the device to check every second and switch after just one failure? “It could be a false alarm,” Chau replied. “There’s enough latency that a provider could be silent for a second.” Users would find the unnecessary switchovers irritating.

The Surf SOHO sells at retail outlets for under US$200. That’s a notch above most consumer-grade routers, but well worth it for the reasons I’ve listed above. (Prices vary in other currencies.)

Horowitz maintains a technical configuration page on the Surf SOHO.

The Balance 20X (Figure 2) is a step up from the SOHO. In addition to an Ethernet WAN port for your primary ISP, the device has a built-in SIM slot. You don’t need to buy a USB dongle; simply obtain a new SIM card from your cellular provider. The router supports an optional expansion module with Ethernet connectivity or another SIM card for redundancy. It also has a USB port on the front for yet another ISP.

Peplink Balance 20X
Figure 2. The Peplink Balance 20X includes a SIM slot on the bottom of the unit and thus does not need a USB dongle.

The Balance 20X retails for under $400. For both routers, the first year of service is free, with support levels after that period as discussed below.

Chau confirmed to me, when I asked, that the USB port on both devices can be used with an Ethernet-to-USB adapter. On the Surf SOHO, you could have up to two wired Internet connections — e.g., DSL and cable — rather than one wired connection and a SIM dongle. On the Balance 20X, you could have up to three wired Internet connections plus one internal SIM card.

Inexpensive management software enables continuous Internet access

Users of Peplink devices get continuous Internet access through a technology the company calls the SpeedFusion Cloud. This service uses 21 data centers spread around the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Your router connects to the closest data center, or you can select any location in the world. SpeedFusion boasts the following benefits:

  • Hot failover. If one provider goes down, SpeedFusion instantly switches to another. This protects from disconnection your VoIP calls, video conferences, and access to cloud services such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and others.
  • WAN smoothing. SpeedFusion uses some of your bandwidth to replace Internet packet losses. This can eliminate jitter in your livestreams, Zoom conferences, and other online activities.
  • Bandwidth bonding. Your connectivity from 2, 3, 4, or more Internet service providers is combined into a single data stream. This gives you a faster connection than any one of your providers offers.
  • Bandwidth overflow. SpeedFusion can use cheaper links for your low-bandwidth applications, and premium links for time-sensitive activities, potentially saving you money.

Peplink announced on November 5, 2020, that SpeedFusion Cloud is now free of charge for any of its devices that are covered by service plans. Service is included during the first year for the Surf SOHO, Balance 20X, and other routers. After that, service plans start at $29/year for the Surf SOHO and $49/year for the Balance 20X. This and other revenue streams give Peplink an economic incentive to keep its software up to date. See Peplink’s SpeedFusion page for details.

Router firmware patches are not completely automated but are free and easily available on Peplink’s downloads page. Chau says users of the company’s InControl management software (for the Surf SOHO) or PrimeCare (for the Balance 20X) can install the latest firmware with a couple of clicks. The latest updates for these devices were posted only 27 days ago.

When I ran the old Windows Secrets office from 2003 to 2010 with seven full-time employees, our DSL service suffered from almost daily dropouts as lengthy as one full second. That was more than enough to terminate our sessions with our remote servers. For redundancy, we set up a second, cellular Internet service provider, which worked. But Peplink’s solutions are simpler and more effective than anything we had back then.

Expand your Wi-Fi signal with access points or wireless nodes

If your home or office needs better Wi-Fi coverage than a single router can provide, Peplink makes the AP One AC Mini (Figure 3) and the AP One AX. To suit your needs, they can be access points, with a wired connection to the router, or wireless mesh nodes.

Peplink AP One AC Mini
Figure 3. The Peplink AP One AC Mini can be a wired Ethernet access point or a mesh node.

The AC Mini retails for about $149 and supports 802.11ac Wave 2 bandwidth, also known as Wi-Fi 5. The AX, about $299, supports 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6. Most consumer devices don’t yet support Wi-Fi 6, but some Apple and MS Surface devices do.

Peplink has received more than 70 patents for its technologies. The company won a gold medal in the VPN category in the 2019 IT Awards of IP Insider, a European publisher.

The company is headquartered in Hong Kong with offices in Minnesota, Taiwan, Lithuania, and Malaysia. I asked whether there were privacy issues with China. “We have no affiliation at all with any government,” Chau replied. “All the routers are manufactured in Taiwan.”

Peplink’s website maintains pages with downloadable datasheets for its Surf SOHO, Balance 20X, and APs/nodes. The company sells its devices through authorized retailers, including Amazon and 5Gstore. The latter company publishes a phone number for configuration advice.

I receive nothing if you buy anything from any of the above links. In future columns, I plan to report on other makers of business-class devices that have come down to consumer prices.

A quick-and-dirty (and slow) backup form of Internet access

What if you don’t wish to set up a second ISP or SIM service? If you don’t mind waiting several minutes rather than seconds to switch over, you can provide Internet access to a Peplink router via smartphone Wi-Fi tethering.

Practically every phone can act as a Wi-Fi hotspot these days. However, a phone’s speed is typically much slower than an ISP’s. Also, your cellular carrier may charge an extra fee for tethering. For a complete how-to, see Brian Nadel’s Computerworld tethering article.

Wouldn’t you like to know what that little box is really doing?

Millions of cheap routers have been installed around the world, with gaping holes that hackers can use to crawl right inside your network. But if a connectivity company has a financial incentive to rapidly patch its firmware — and provides management software that lets you see what your transceiver is actually doing — you can have a router that’s truly your own.

Do you know a secret that we all should know? Tell me about it! I’ll keep your identity totally confidential or give you credit as you prefer. Send your story via the Public Defender tips page.
Questions or comments? Feedback on this article is always welcome in the AskWoody Lounge!

The PUBLIC DEFENDER column is Brian Livingston’s campaign to give you consumer protection from tech. If it’s irritating you, and it has an “on” switch, he’ll take the case! Brian is a successful dot-com entrepreneur, author or co-author of 11 Windows Secrets books, and author of the new book Muscular Portfolios. Get his free monthly newsletter.

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