Blog Post

AT&T Begins Public Trial of 3G MicroCell

att_3gmicrocellFor iPhone users like myself chained to the shoddy service of AT&T (s att) by Apple’s (s aapl) seemingly interminable exclusivity contract with the carrier, hope for better reception springs eternal, at least if you live in North Carolina.

The AT&T 3G MicroCell that looks more like a video game console is actually a tiny cellular base station, or femtocell. For those with more bars in more places, except where they live, the 3G MicroCell will access AT&T’s network via broadband, DSL or cable.

Initially, it appears AT&T is only taking orders for parts of Charlotte, NC, the service agreement stating the “device may not function except in specific counties in the Raleigh, NC, Charlotte, NC, Columbia, SC, and Atlanta, GA metropolitan areas in a phased network roll-out.” In other words, it’s not ready for those languishing in areas that could really use a 3G MicroCell, like San Francisco or New York. No doubt, the 3G MicroCell will get there eventually, but if you want one now you need to live in the southern U.S.

If you do, and you have a 3G phone — original iPhone users need not apply — the 3G MicroCell will support up to four users simultaneously in a coverage area of up to 5,000 square feet. Of course, you need to be an AT&T wireless customer, and you’ll need to pay outrageously, but if you’re an AT&T customer you already know that.

While Sprint charges as little as $4.99 per month for its competing service and Verizon requires only a purchase of the device, AT&T users can look forward to paying as much as $20 a month to make up for the carrier’s poor coverage. That’s the price if you only have AT&T wireless. If you have AT&T wireless and DSL, it’s $10 a month. Those who have a landline, too, can use the service for free, but what’s the point if you have a landline?

Finally, you will be burning cell plan minutes using an 3G MicroCell that may not even be piggybacking on AT&T’s broadband, though there may also be unlimited call plans in association with the service. If this sounds like a lousy deal to you, it does to me too. Unfortunately, until the exclusivity contract between Apple and AT&T ends — if it ends — options aside from jailbreaking are limited.

AT&T: More Bars in More Places — for a price.

18 Responses to “AT&T Begins Public Trial of 3G MicroCell”

  1. Tyler Pomerhn

    Just tried it. Works great, so long as no 2G/GPRS/GSM phone attempts to enter the microcell’s range. This thing absolutely kills my wife’s Blackberry signal and stops her from calling out. I think this is a MAJOR FLAW – I understand only “repeating” 3G signal, but 2G/GPRS/GSM phones should be unaffected. I shudder to think of these installed in apartment complexes; anyone with an apartment remotely close to someone with one of these will lose all capability of calling out. Even if my wife and I both had 3G phones, guests/visitors would lose their signal!


  2. Where I live in FL, we have effective 3g service. Inside my house which was built to withstand hurricanes and is essentially a concrete pillbox, cell reception can be rather dodgy. So while I agree with much of the criticism of ATT (for the record, I don’t agree with singling ATT out – imo all wireless companies are greedy scum by their nature and fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders), ATT is not coming up short in providing service to me. I had Verizon when I first moved here and their service inside the house was equally unreliable but fine outside. Visitors on a variety of networks make calls from my patios or balcony.

    With this MicroCell, ATT is providing an option for bunker-dwellers like myself. Hopefully the chirpers who come out every time ATT releases a service for anything but free will back ATT into a corner and they’ll give the box for free when they expand nationally.

  3. Heh… Before I first started reading this article, I had this idea in my head that they were going to pay users to install these units in their houses — to help expand their shoddy network on other people’s broadband networks.

    How naive of me. I should have known that AT&T would never pay me a dime for anything. Only AT&T would have the balls to make people pay to improve their crappy network.

  4. I am seeing nerd rage all over the tubes over the pricing on this, and I get it. I don’t exactly want to help ATT build the network they keep telling me is so great. But my house is a dead zone on every cell network. So I’m going to fork out the $150 for this. I’m happy it’s $100 cheaper than the verizon option. I wish I could feel angry and indignant over this ‘fiasco’, but I’m actually kinda excited to soon be able to make calls inside my house.

    • Daniel, you’re excited about this because AT&T has lowered the bar and beaten you over the head with it. I just started with AT&T (and ONLY because of the iPhone), so Stockholm Syndrome has not yet set in with me. I can’t believe they’re making people pay $150 to improve service that their commercials claim is the best in the nation. Huh? So, you’ve bought the microcell, but you find yourself out and about and your service stinks again. What then? Surely, AT&T will be coming along with another product to squeeze money out of its customers. Stay tuned.

  5. I have AT&T and the iphone 3g. Aside from at my home, coverage in the area of the country that I live is pretty good with AT&T; pretty much on par with Verizon. I get a bar or two at the house, but it’s not quite reliable enough to not have a “land-line” in addition to the cell phones that I have for my wife, daughter and myself. As an interim solution, until they put another tower up near my house, I have broadband phone service with Vonage. At $25 ($30 after tax and fees) per month, it wouldn’t take too long before I could justify spending $150 to get a microcell from AT&T so that I can dump Vonage. In essence, I’m still using my broadband connection to handle my calls. But instead of having another phone number, another bill, and having seperate home and cell phone directories updated, I keep it all on one device/devices. It’s more simple and in the long run, less expensive. As far as the $20 unlimited plan…I would probably pass on that and just use my plan minutes. I’m always rolling minutes over so now I would finally be able to use all the minutes that I’m paying for. In this scenario, it would only take me about 5 months to justify/offset the cost of the microcell. A 3g microcell isn’t for everyone, but it my case, it make sense. I can’t wait until they roll them out nationwide!!!

  6. let me make sure I understand this……

    you buy a $150 device (plus a potential service fee) that you plug into your existing home network, that will give you good 3G access within ~40 feet of the unit? (40^2 * pi = “coverage area of up to 5,000 square feet”)
    and you would use this instead of WiFi, why exactly?

    • ok, just occurred to me that you would likely be using this to make your voice connections better, not necessarily for better data connections.

      nevertheless, this seems like the ultimate of all cost-shifting measures. I suspect we can start to see this from other wireless providers – instead of building or upgrading their towers, they make users buy little mini-towers for each home they want to serve!

  7. Michael Young

    Please check your facts. I purchased a MicroCell this morning from ATT store in Charlotte. The device was $149.99 and their is no obligation beyond that. The $20 montly unlimited is optional. If you do not choose that option you just use your minutes as usual through the device for no montly cost. If you do choose to get the $20 per month service the device comes with a $100 mail in rebate.

  8. I guess I dont understand – if you have access to a device like that, you would be using WiFi. Why would ATT not just activate the capability of a VoIP type function? That would reduce the stress on the networks alot of place would be my guess. I would not want to give up the feature of talking on the phone while looking up something on the web however.

  9. One very salient fact that you got completely wrong is that your $20/month buys you unlimited talk time for you and yours on the microcell. In other words, you are absolutely not burning any minutes to use this. Not sure how you could have missed that – maybe your anger and frustration are clouding your reporting skills?

    At any rate, I’d much rather see this for $10/mo or less, and free for folks who have to suffer through crap coverage in their OWN freaking homes and offices, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are way off base in your analysis.

    For example, Verizon’s microcell does burn minutes with no option for unlimited microcell useage, so the lack of a monthly charge on that is apples/oranges to AT&Ts offering. Verizon’s box also doesn’t handle 3g Data, so you’re getting voice only.

    As for Sprint, the $4.99 service you laud also does not include unlimted useage – you are burning your minutes. To avoid that you have to pay an additional $10/mo, bringing things up to $15/mo.

    Maybe the facts just don’t fit your AT&T is teh 3vil narrative as well as your hyperbole, but ignoring them is just shameful – espscially when there are many *legitimate* things to criticize AT&T for.