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Summary:

For many iPhone users held hostage by AT&T’s second-rate 3G network, the announcement that a nationwide rollout of the AT&T 3G MicroCell will begin in April sounds like a long-awaited promise of coverage rescue finally coming true. Certainly that’s what I thought when I started using […]

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For many iPhone users held hostage by AT&T’s second-rate 3G network, the announcement that a nationwide rollout of the AT&T 3G MicroCell will begin in April sounds like a long-awaited promise of coverage rescue finally coming true.

Certainly that’s what I thought when I started using the MicroCell last year, but six months later I haven’t found cellular freedom at home so much as a better jail cell for me and my iPhone.

Regarding the announcement, AT&T says only that the nationwide launch will begin in mid-April, with “new markets activating in cities across the continental U.S. for the next several months.” To date, that’s mostly been regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, with San Diego and Las Vegas being recently added.

However, browsing the MicroCell support forum, posts are appearing declaring MicroCell availability in Arizona, New Mexico and New York—not New York City. Expect the MicroCell to be available in most U.S. cities by the end of 2010. Now that the “when” has been answered, the question is whether there is any value for the iPhone user with poor coverage at home.

How’s that image for an answer. Instafail. Despite the “five bar” coverage in my house, I will intermittently and without any discernible pattern have calls fail immediately after initiating them. A second attempt always succeeds, but it’s frustrating, and it happens on both my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone. After six months of being a beta tester, replacing one problematic MicroCell, troubleshooting various problems with tech support and discovering solutions on my own, I still have problems.

Other problems include what I would describe as passive-aggressive xenophobia on the part of my MicroCell towards people in call centers, presumably on other continents. Calls to call centers represent the most frequent of infrequent in-call drops. However, I also drop calls if I let the kitchen get between me and the MicroCell, even if the distance is less than 20 feet. Even keeping the kitchen out of the way, the range of the MicroCell could be better. In two different houses, I find 50 feet and a wall or two is the upward range limit.

Should your MicroCell itself drop out—and it will—it’s pretty easy to get running again. Disconnecting power and reconnecting will almost always have it back online within 15 minutes. Should that not work, it will be necessary to re-register the MicroCell on AT&T’s website, then reconnect it with your network. It’s a tedious and time-consuming process, but I haven’t had to do that since November, so perhaps that’s one problem fixed.

What will these problems cost you? The MicroCell sells for $149.99, though qualified purchasers can get rebates of up to $100, making the cost of network coverage that AT&T should already be providing only $50. To get the rebate, you have to sign up for a MicroCell calling plan at $19.99 per month. If you don’t get a MicroCell calling plan, calls will be deducted from you cell plan minutes. Seriously, is this a great deal for AT&T or what? Unburdening their network woes on the backs of broadband providers and getting AT&T cell phone users to pay for it—brilliant!

So, should you get a MicroCell? That’s not really the question. Rather, the question is can you replace your POTS or VoIP landline with a MicroCell and iPhone? My experience is that you cannot. While you can count on the AT&T 3G MicroCell to extend “five bar” coverage to your home, the bars are still a prison, and AT&T remains the iPhone’s jailer. Those of us desiring to cut our landlines don’t need an AT&T 3G MicroCell, we need a Verizon iPhone.

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  1. You said – “Seriously, is this a great deal for AT&T or what? Unburdening their network woes on the backs of broadband providers and getting AT&T cell phone users to pay for it—brilliant!”

    No. Freaking. Kidding! They should give these things for free to anyone who has a crappy service at home, not charge $20 a month plus the up-front hardware cost.

  2. It’s worth noting that Sprint’s equivalent of AT&T’s MicroCell product is available to subscribers for free if you call in complaining about Sprint’s service in your area.

    1. Matthew, I tried that with AT&T. I was told that I could submit a form to get out of my contract with AT&T without paying an early termination fee, but no free MicroCell for me. We’ll see what happens if there is a Verizon iPhone. I’m thinking AT&T might work a little harder to keep subscribers then.

  3. i will switch to another provider if the iphone is offered on another network, no questions asked. the only way AT&T could keep me as a customer is if they give me a *free* femto cell for my home and a second unit for my office. coverage in NY, while improved, is still dismal.

  4. There is never going to be a Verizon iPhone as long as they’re CDMA…. and you should really be happy about that.Verizon crippled my blackberry 8830 on their network. Even though the phone came with GPS, Verizon blocked it because they wanted you to purchase their craptastic GPS for 10 bucks a month. Verizon service was great, but it was offset by the constant lack of anything innovative when it comes to phones (until Droid…released the same month I got my iphone… which I couldn’t be happier with, by the way) and the money grubbing they did with every add on service/feature. I’m delighted to be done with big red.

    1. There are more than a billion CDMA and CDMA2000 users worldwide, a demographic worth the investment of a compatible iPhone, I think. It’s a potentially huge market for Apple in the US alone. How many Droid users would have bought an iPhone, given the opportunity, how many still might?

    2. exactly! by making a cdma iphone, or a cdma+gsm iPhone, Apple ads a potentional i believe 90 million customers and i for one, would be one of them.

    3. Charles, “…more than a billion CDMA…users worldwide?” Hmmm…not according to CDMA Development Group which reports surpassing 512 million global subscribers > http://www.cdg.org/worldwide/cdma_world_subscriber.asp While GSM still services 90% market share.

  5. We have a zBoost Wi-extender cellular repeater (~$200-250) in our house because we live in a land depression (in the country) that is filled with 50′ oak trees. Of course AT&T or VZ don’t have coverage there. The zBoost, plus 70′ of quadshielded cable, plus 5 or 6 expensive couplers from RadioShack, plus a cellular amplifier, plus a 50′ tower (needed to get wireless broadband internet), plus a 10dB gain yagi antenna…. and we finally have coverage inside the house. 3G, even, though it can be temperamental and the repeating unit needs to be reset now and again.

  6. just to let you know all our cdma networks in canada HAVE the iphone. They all went over to a sim chip and two of our networks are gasp 4g (they were the cdma networks) so don’t discount that verison may get the iphone just google bell or telus (and virgin here has the iphone too)

    1. I don’t know what you’re on, but I’d like to have some for Saturday night.

  7. That’s pretty funny since the iPhone does not have a CDMA radio in it!!

  8. Meh indeed.

    UNLESS—

    You have a 4 iPhone family and zero bars at your house. Then you’ll trade a years salary and your 1st born for the privilege of obtaining these precious, rare items of desire.

  9. You can’t get this thing if you don’t live in a 3G coverage area, which limits its availability in 90% of the US. You can’t create 3G coverage out of nothing.
    The zBoost on the other hand, works great, for either CDMA or GSM phones, boosting EDGE or 3G, take your pick.

    1. Not true. You just need to live somewhere that is within an “AT&T wireless authorized service area.” This is verified by the device’s GPS. Like the name implies, Microcell acts as a small cell site, creating a 3G UMTS network. It is not a repeater of any kind. The only catch to this is that it will only work with 3G-capable phones.

  10. Installed the microcell a week ago in my house. Plugged it into my router and waited about 15 minutes while its lights flashed. There have been no problems! No dropped calls or poor voice quality. I have Comcast cable with a 20 Mbit connection. Coverage is very good. I live in a 1300 sq. ft. house. I have five bars everywhere except the far end of the garage. This more than I expected.

    1. I have just spent about 2 hours testing the 3G Microcell, and out of 5 phone calls made, 4 calls were dropped. Every one of these calls originated from the Microcell, and 3 of those were switched to an AT&T cell tower during the call. The house is 1200 sq feet, not anywhere near the 5000 sq feet maximum suggested on the box. We have a 25 megabit FIOS connection.

      Either this thing is a piece of junk, or I need to replace my Blackberry Bold 9000. Either way, I’m totally fed up with my AT&T situation. I’m considering switching to the Bold 9700 as a last ditch effort, or just going to Verizon.

      1. I have also purchased the microcell. If i stay in the room where the microcell is located the call quality is fine. However if there is one wall in between my cell and the phone, the receivers voice becomes garbled and i have to walk back into the room. The only thing that makes me happy is that I am able to receive calls now which were intermittent before. Getting voicemails 4 hours after they happen was inexcusable. The phone I have is the IPhone 4.

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