AT&T’s Home Base hotspot–router (free with a two-year service plan; $199.99 otherwise) is a peculiar hotspot designed to bring landline phone and both wired and Wi-Fi internet to a home or RV. While it’s a good choice for a niche market that needs its wired ports, we prefer the AT&T Unite Explore hotspot, even for primary internet use.
Design and Features
The Home Base, made by ZTE, is a chunky black square, about five inches on a side and one inch high. On the front, there are five lights for power, voice mail, alert notices from AT&T, Wi-Fi, and signal strength. It plugs into the wall with a power adapter, although it has a short-term battery in it as well.
Unfortunately, there’s no display on the front, unlike on hotspots like the aforementioned Unite Explore. That means, most notably, there’s no easy way to monitor your steadily declining data allotment without going to the hotspot’s web-based management page.
Turn it around, and whoa—there’s an RJ-45 Ethernet and two RJ-11 phone jacks! Yep, you can connect landline phones, a wired desktop PC, or a separate home router to this. We connected a landline handset and the call quality was perfectly clear, clearer than on an AT&T cell phone in the same location. The landline phone jack doesn’t work with faxes or home security systems. But these ports are unique to the Home Base, and one of its major selling points.
Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities here are basic. Wi-Fi is 802.11n, on the 2.4GHz band only. Security is WPA2. There’s basic port forwarding and MAC filtering, but not the full set of options you’d see in an advanced home router. We got about 50 feet from the Home Base before seeing speeds and quality seriously degrade.
For cellular, the Home Base supports LTE bands 2/4/5/17, 3G, and 2G. That’ll give you maximum AT&T coverage but not speeds; the MDM9215 modem is a mere Category 3, with maximum theoretical speeds of 100Mbps and average speeds with good coverage around 20 to 30Mbps. That said, rural areas often don’t have the higher-speed technologies anyway.
The Home Base also has a 1,500mAh battery in it, but don’t think of this as a traveling hotspot to beat the Unite Explore: it only got two hours of streaming time before the battery gave out. The battery is more to take into consideration places where the electricity goes out from time to time.
RF reception is good. More importantly, users have found MS156 antenna connections under the battery, and with minor hardware hacking, you can connect external antennas. If tweaking the Home Base worries you, you can also just go for a WeBoost Connect or WeBoost Eqo 4G booster kit.
Service Plan and Competitors
The Home Base comes with two service plans: 25GB of data, plus unlimited calling, for $60 per month, or 50GB plus calling for $100 per month. That’s more high-speed data than you can get by adding the Home Base to an AT&T unlimited plan, although if you have other AT&T devices, the unlimited plan is probably a better deal (see below). There used to be a rural 250GB plan that looked terrific, but it’s no longer available.
AT&T also offers a Fixed Wireless product available in a few rural areas with 160GB for $60. If you’re okay with mounting an external antenna and not being able to move your router around, that’s a better deal than the Home Base or a hotspot plan.
AT&T’s prices are better than Hughesnet, the big satellite provider. Hughesnet offers 20GB for $59.99 and 50GB for $99.99, but voice costs an extra $24.95, and the rates go up after two years. Also, you can’t carry a satellite dish around.
You can also consider hotspot service plans from other carriers. Verizon limits full-speed hotspot data on its unlimited plan to 15GB, which isn’t enough for most people to use for home internet, although it may be fine for the occasional weekend. After that, it gets choked down to 600Kbps. The carrier’s LTE Internet and Home Phone plan, for its own Home Base-like hotspot, is ridiculously expensive. $110 for 20GB plus calling? No thanks. Sprint’s unlimited plan, as far as we can tell, throttles you after a mere 10GB of hotspot use.
T-Mobile’s $95 per month One Plus International plan has unlimited hotspot use, but the terms of service are studded with warnings against using it around the clock for home internet. Also, after 50GB your connection may get slowed. (Notice how that’s about on par with AT&T and Hughes’ 50GB, $100 per month offers—nobody’s being dumb here.)
AT&T’s $90 Unlimited Plus smartphone plan can be used with a hotspot for an extra $20 per month. That gets you 22GB of full-speed data, which may get unexpectedly slowed after that. If you’re also an AT&T smartphone customer, and you don’t need the Home Base’s Ethernet or landline jacks, this plan with an AT&T Unite Explore makes a great combination. The Unite Explore has an interactive display, 18 hours of battery life, and better Wi-Fi than the Home Base does.
The AT&T Home Base has a unique set of features; the landline phone jack, Ethernet jack, and mobility will appeal to RVers or those with second homes. Rural primary homeowners should look into the Fixed Wireless product instead. Existing AT&T customers who don’t need the landline phone jack should try the Unite Explore added to the Unlimited Plus plan. While you will get de-prioritized after 22GB, the Unite Explore is a more flexible hotspot, and the $20 plan add-on beats the $60-and-up for the dedicated Home Base plan.
But when the average AT&T Home Internet customer uses 100GB per month, and usage is only going to increase with features like 4K video streaming coming to living rooms, it’s clear that these are all second-tier services. Wireless networks just don’t seem to have the capacity for primary home internet use. Rural America needs real, high-speed home internet, not a cellular substitute.