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Summary:

AT&T’s latest solution to improving network coverage, making the customer pay more and leeching off broadband providers, also known as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, is now in public trials. While the tiny cellular base station, or femtocell, is not yet available in places like New York […]

AT&T’s latest solution to improving network coverage, making the customer pay more and leeching off broadband providers, also known as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, is now in public trials.

While the tiny cellular base station, or femtocell, is not yet available in places like New York or San Francisco, where the call drop rate is rumored to be as high as 30 percent for some iPhone users, it can be had in parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. I live in Raleigh. How’s my coverage?

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Despite the reassurance of AT&T’s coverage map, I’m lucky to complete a call with my iPhone 3GS from home. After several pained conversations with technical support, an AT&T engineer told me that the coverage map is based upon “mathematical models,” and that it might be the trees around the house interfering with my signal. Seriously.

Faced with clear cutting two acres of woods or chancing $150 on an AT&T 3G MicroCell, the choice seemed simple enough. My wife won’t let me have a chainsaw, so I decided to test the veracity of AT&T’s new slogan: five bar coverage in your home. The experience proved interesting.

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The Process

Purchasing a MicroCell currently requires a trip to the local AT&T Store. A representative checked to see that I had a 3G phone with AT&T, any Internet broadband, and an eligible, local address. Lousy coverage is optional, but the experience survey that was not supposed to be sent home with me repeatedly mentioned the issue.

Having met the requirements, I purchased the MicroCell for $150, currently subject to regional rebates. In Raleigh, there are three: $50, $100, and $150, for subscribing to AT&T broadband, unlimited MicroCell calling, or both. For $19.99 per month I was offered the Unlimited MicroCell Calling Plan, allowing me to save my wireless plan minutes. Since I hate talking to people and have about a million rollover minutes, I declined.

I was then educated about how emergency services work—don’t move your MicroCell unless you tell AT&T and stay on the line when calling 911. Also, the MicroCell will only function in authorized regions—don’t eBay your MicroCell. The representative then offered to register it online right there, but where’s the fun in that?

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At home, I was pleasantly surprised at how simple setup was. I logged into the MicroCell site with my wireless account info, entered the MicroCell serial number, and was presented with a list of approved users from my wireless plan. You can add more, up to a maximum of 10, but no more than four callers can use the MicroCell simultaneously. Physical setup was easy, too.

  1. Connect the included Ethernet cable to the MicroCell and a wireless router, or directly to the computer for those without a router.
  2. Power down everything, then power everything up.
  3. Anxiously wait approximately 90 minutes with an increasing amount of bile in the throat.

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A series of flashing glyphs like something out of StarGate Atlantis indicate progressive success, or lack thereof. GPS lock may take awhile, and AT&T recommends placing the MicroCell within three feet of a window. I got GPS lock pretty quick, but the 3G indicator just kept flashing, then after about 90 minutes I lost GPS. While praying to whatever dark gods that live in the sky to hurl the GPS satellite into my house and end my telecom misery, I suddenly received a text message.

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Replacing no bars and no network, there is now a signal indicator for the MicroCell that usually displays five bars and means it.

The Results

After several days of testing, I have yet to drop a call. Call quality ranges from good, a slight echoing the most common issue, to static-free excellence. Most often it’s the latter, and call quality is always better than the overpriced VoIP service from Time Warner Cable. As for data speeds, it’s like being on Verizon’s network, that is very good, but why settle for 3G when you have Wi-Fi at home?

There are a few issues with the MicroCell, though. The range is 40 to 60 feet in a straight line, but you better be living in a tent. So far, I’ve found signal quality degrading through multiple walls, especially when calling from the kitchen, the room farthest from the MicroCell. I’m still experimenting, but turning off Wi-Fi on the iPhone seems to increase both range and reception at extended distances for me. Should I pass beyond the range of the MicroCell, calls seamlessly transition to “No Service,” though most others will find themselves on AT&T’s wireless network. Be advised though, that transitioning works only one way.

There is one other potential performance issue. Should you be using computers for network intensive applications, like backing up online or torrenting. . . Ubuntu distributions, you may have problems during calls. Others said I was cutting out, though I heard them clearly. The MicroCell requires a minimum bandwidth of 1.5Mbps down and 256Kbps up. I have, in theory, 7Mbps and 512Kbps, respectively, but have been forced to do my perfectly legal bandwidth hogging at night. Still, that’s a minor inconvenience.

Overall, I am very pleased with the AT&T 3G MicroCell and give it the highest praise an Apple devotee can: it just works! Sure, there’s a $150 price tag on service AT&T should already provide, but it’s a price that I and many other long-suffering iPhone users will no doubt we willing to pay.

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  1. $150 and monthly fees are crazy for networks ATT is already supposed to provide. They should be giving these away in areas where there is limited connectivity. You’re also paying for the broadband to backhaul this data into their network. So far, they’re losing nothing, and you’re paying for it. It doesn’t even sound that great. 40-60 feet, and only if you don’t have walls? Come on. Again, this is crazy.

    1. To be as fair as I can be to AT&T, reception is okay through a couple of walls, not great through too many walls, though. Interestingly, range and performance are similar to that of the Airport Extreme I’m using. If people experience better performance with an Airport Extreme in their own homes, perhaps my walls are coated in lead paint or something :)

      And I still think the MicroCell is great because it’s made my iPhone a phone in my own home.

    2. I completely agree with you. AT&T should provide this service at no additional charge. They need to worry about upgrading their service area. It is not the customers responsibility to do this. For example, if we informed them that yes they could get their money, however they would have to go through say a process in order to get it (i.e. they had to contact the bank and set up a system to receive payments, yet there was an extra charge on their end to do so). They would not agree to such a process, for it is the customers job to pay them. Just like it is their job to provide service for the customer.

  2. I’m happy to see this post so quickly after I received my AT&T offer in Charlotte. You told me exactly what I needed to know. The offer is now in the trash.

  3. Ugh… that bit about “network intensive applications” affecting calls might be a deal breaker. Namely, watching a lot of movies via Netflix Watch Instantly or the Apple TV in our household.

    1. The main issue is the upstream saturation. With my vonage I quickly learned that if a torrent application is open, even with upstream limited to 5kbps I can hear the person I’m calling just fine, but that person can’t understand me. Like the OP I mainly just use utorrent while I am downloading a linux distro and I’m a bad seeder so I don’t know how much my voice lessens on the microcell while uTorrent is open.

      Netflix and such mainly just use the downstream so unless you often upload data you will most likely be OK. Most ISPs offer lots of downsteam, but limited upstream. We pay for supercharged road runner and get 10 mbps down but only like 500 kbps up.

  4. Arnan de Gans Friday, October 2, 2009

    While undoubtedly its a nice device… What happens when you leave the house? Also think it’s a sad excuse from AT&T to even require these boxes to buff their network.

    It’s like saying “yea we know we suck but guess what, we’ve got a solution! We take $150 from you for service you already pay for and you get this nifty little box that let’s you make calls like you should already. Oh and by the way, we take your internet speed too!”

    I’d rather jailbreak my iPhone than to put up with a company like AT&T.

    1. If it’s just your house that’s a dead zone, which was the case in the last place I lived, AT&T says you’ll transition to their network without losing your call when you get outside. My current home requires me to travel about half a mile down the road before I get decent reception, so I drop calls when getting out of range of the MicroCell. Again, on the transition thing, it’s one way. If you are on the phone coming home, you will not switch to the MicroCell.

    2. Hello,

      Your article and detailed responses to other readers
      seems to dictate the need for this device and service.That much is clear,severely insufficient signal
      strength.However, to have to fund another “service”,adjacent, to your regular AT&T.’s service,is
      a disservice to you as the customer and others. Your comments never really touch on this issue,as brought up by others.If you’re willing to pay for this,then,by all means, but to indicate that other iPhone owners would willingly? I do not think so sir,at least,not without grumbling about reasonable customer expectations of a provider,namely,AT&T.
      Thank you.

  5. When you say that “Be advised though, that transitioning works only one way” — do you mean that you can start within the range of your MicroCell and then transition to the regular AT&T network but that you cannot start on the regular AT&T network and then transition to the MicroCell?

    If so that kinda puts a damper on being able to transition from my car to my apartment when I get home without dropping a call.

  6. I think you answered my question in the last blog comment response. I had not refreshed the browser before I posted.

    Disappointed to read that bit of news.

    1. Here is a bit of good news for you: if you have the unlimited plan, calls that originate on the Microcell and transfer to AT&T towers are considered unlimited.

      P.S: 80 minutes and counting…

  7. Nigel Paterson Saturday, October 3, 2009

    I wish we could get these in Australia.

    But why does it need a GPS connection (I presume that’s why it needs to be close to the window)? Just to make sure you don’t pass yours onto a fried who might live in a non-approved area?

    1. This is my guess: each cell phone tower should know exactly where it is located. I think it’s required by law if I’m not mistaken so that the Police can track the devices. Also your cell tower triangulation that gives an approximate location of your cell phone works based on the GPS location of the towers. AT&T Microcell is a 3G mini tower, so it has to follow the protocol.

    2. The GPS is used to compare the actual device location to the address that has been provided for the unit. This is to satisfy the E911 service requirements. Place a 911 call from a phone using the 3G MicroCell and the address that the 3G MicroCell has registered to will be reported.

      While I did not try it, according to the ATT rep, if I wanted to take the device to an area where ATT is authorized to provide wireless service, I need to go online and update the 3G MicroCell location address. When connected at the new location the GPS would be used to verify the proximity to the address on record and then it can be used.
      I get the impression that if there is a difference (don’t know the allowable error percentage) between the GPS location and the address the device is registered at…it will not allow any phone to connect.

  8. LongTimeObserver Saturday, October 3, 2009

    40-60 feet? Living in a tent?

    When coverage expands to TEN TIMES that value, might START to be worthwhile.

  9. Apparently there is no 2-year contract for the unlimited calling. A better thing to do was to ask for the unlimited home calling plan, send the $100 rebate form, disconnect when you receive your check! You could save $60 or so this way (plus a couple of month free home calling; which I agree with thousands of rollover minutes is worthless)

  10. Something I hadn’t thought of testing happened today, that being I had to reset my cable modem. It took about five minutes for the MicroCell to automatically reactivate 3G service after the modem was working.

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