As an iPhone user held hostage in AT&T’s network by the exclusivity agreement with Apple, the arrival of the AT&T 3G MicroCell felt like being rescued. Four weeks later, I now realize only Verizon can do that, but my updated assessment of the 3G MicroCell is […]

As an iPhone user held hostage in AT&T’s network by the exclusivity agreement with Apple, the arrival of the AT&T 3G MicroCell felt like being rescued. Four weeks later, I now realize only Verizon can do that, but my updated assessment of the 3G MicroCell is still positive, mostly.


During the first three weeks of operation, the MicroCell was down form some period of time on nine separate days. Periods of outage lasted from 15 minutes to several hours, but were usually less than an hour. There was no discernible pattern, and for every instance but one the fix was: unplug, wait, plug back in.

The single outlier was a little more insidious. While my iPhone reported “five bars,” attempting to make a call would result in immediate failure. That episode required deactivating the MicroCell with AT&T, reinstalling it as if it were new equipment, and about three Zantac.

If this makes the MicroCell sound like a product not ready for sale to the general public, it’s not. Those paying $150 for a MicroCell in eligible cities are participating in a “public trial.” If one didn’t know they were a beta tester, the uncharacteristically helpful technical support gives it away.

Diagnosing my problem, it was suggested that updates to the firmware by AT&T may have been responsible. Of course, the MicroCell is supposed to reboot itself when the firmware is updated, but even a tech support placebo can make you feel better. It was also suggested that I try priority mode configuration, and that appears to actually have worked.


By switching the connection order of the MicroCell and wireless router, the MicroCell supposedly reserves sufficient bandwidth for voice and data at all times. Why it needs to carve out a 3G slice of bandwidth on a Wi-Fi network remains a mystery, but I’m not complaining. The outages stopped after changing the device setup. My initial fears concerning bandwidth throttling proved unrealized, or maybe a firmware update solved that, too. Either way, speed tests with and without the MicroCell connected have the same results.

While it appears that my hardware issues have been resolved, a longer look at call performance is not as positive as my initial assessment. To the MicroCell’s credit, it has yet to drop a call. Further, call quality to and from individuals remains generally very good, but, strangely, there are problems calling some businesses.

Maybe my MicroCell hates talking with people in India, but calls to and from toll-free numbers or businesses are often choppy. My observation is that phone numbers that aren’t point-to-point, one number to one number, are far more likely to break up. It may be anthropomorphic on my part, but it’s like the MicroCell hates being put on hold and transferred, but then who doesn’t?

Finally, I continue to be disappointed with the range of the device. AT&T says 5,000 square feet, but I say 50 squared, or about 50 feet in a straight line. That’s very close to being unacceptable for me, but being as Apple is still playing coy with Verizon, or vice versa, my options are limited. If yours are too, the AT&T 3G MicroCell remains a relatively pleasant cell on AT&T’s prison network.

  1. A circle with a 50 foot radius covers over 7,800 square feet. Sounds like in your testing they are doing better than their promise. http://www.google.com/search?q=pi+*+50^2

    1. I’m being charitable. While it works at that distance, or even a little farther, I get the best reception in rooms adjacent to the MicroCell’s location. Of course, that’s my range, and range seems to be very subjective with this device.

  2. indeed, 5000 ft^2 is a circle with a radius of about 40 ft.

  3. I believe the device on the left-side of the graphic is a “router” not a “modem”? Thanks for the update, though disappointed.

  4. Hi,

    I’m living outside the USA.
    My question is, can the microcell works with every ISP, or do you need DSL(?) from AT&T.
    I don’t want to buy one, because I know they only works with AT&T.

    1. @iGuido85:
      The AT&T Microcell is specific to the AT&T networks. And it uses GPS to confirm it’s location. It will not work outside of its intended area.

  5. Have you tried comparing call quality to India on a regular phone line?

  6. I wonder if AT&T has microcells setup in each of their store locations. If not, this may be a wise decision to increase AT&T’s coverage area.

  7. Kenneth Stevens Thursday, November 12, 2009

    You could always get a cheap APS UPS to power your Microcell during power outages.


  8. As a surgeon frequently on call, the calling network is mission critical and AT&T doesn’t work in my home. I am looking to switch to verizon while using my iPhone as an iPod. Maybe I’ll get a Droid.

  9. I live in south central Arkansas and get very weak service with no 3G.
    When will the microcell be avaible? Been reading about it for awhile
    now and still have the same question.

  10. Well guys, the iphone 3Gs can now be found unlocked. Legally unlocked. Check out http://bit.ly/8btvZt and see for yourself!

Comments have been disabled for this post