Review: AT&T 3G MicroCell

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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