Review: AT&T 3G MicroCell

85 Comments

AT&T’s (s att) 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.

85 Comments

Jc

I dont know were the martians are coming from on this thread..but in Georgia there is not a better network than AT&T…O Verison is at some locations but really not a decision maker between the two networks…hey the guy that talks about the mini tower..hey dude try to get them to put one in a privite driveway…Man these people must be Obama supporters….as for me I dont believe that it is my inherited right for AT&T to supply my service…I am going tomorrow and get a MicroCell..O I guess I could be like the nuts on this thread and even think my leaving AT&T for another network, that does not work any better is really going to bankrupt them…Man get a life….if you can not afford the 150…you really should not be speading the money for a cell phone in the first place….AT&T please give me a MicroCell……and thank you for thinking about the fringe people

Brian Ferguson

“..but in Georgia there is not a better network than AT&T”

As a resident of Georgia and a user of both Verizon and AT&T ( Cingular before the purchase)…I find that statement to be false…

Leave the city or major highway (by just a mile or two) and then see how AT&T’s coverage compares to Verizon.

In rural areas I don’t expect 3G or data…but I do expect enough of a signal to be able to place or receive voice calls. In my experience AT&T does not come close to matching Verizon on that simple requirement.

KC

Thanks for sharing your experience. Very helpful in getting an idea of how the MicroCell really performs. I’m just looking forward to the day iPhone users are released from their bondage to AT&T and its pitiful network.

john

Oh yeah and I just got $10 in the mail for answering a survey about the microcell..

john

It will work with any AT&T 3G phone, not just the iPhone, WiFI has not been an issue for me, although the range of the microcell is actually better for me than my WiFi, so you can actually use tethering from the iPhone to your mac and get better coverage than using wifi..

Louie

Thanks!

Does the iPhone have to be 3G or 3GS? It can’t be an original iPhone to use this just for cell service?

I have WiFi at home, so I don’t need data service over 3G. I’m willing to risk the lower coverage of the microcell by leaving the iPhone’s WiFi running.

john

You need to configure the microcell to allow each phone to connect to it – up to 10, so as long as he has a 3g phone you should be able to get him going.

Louie

Am I to understand that only the AT&T phones that are on my account can connect to this MicroCell? So my brother-in-law, who’s on his own account, can’t connect to my MicroCell when he comes over?

If I’m offering AT&T service in my own home, I should be allowed to decide to let whomever I want on my femtocell.

Jon

Actually, you can go into your settings and put up to 10 numbers who can access your 3G MicroCell. I have my friends who are on AT&T on it and they can use their phones while at my house.

Bob

Man. I’m sick of the people saying this should be free because AT&T has a crappy network. Nobody is forcing you to buy these. It can be a huge pain in the ass to get new cell towers put up thanks to the NIMBY idiots that think phones cause cancer/are ugly/kill birds/whatever. It’s not like AT&T (who’s network stuff is being run by Ericsson) can just run over to Fry’s and get a new cell tower and slap it up in your yard.
The Microcell is a handy in-between. It’s a bit easier to use than the T-Mobile solution (UMA) and works with all AT&T handsets. Maybe the monthly pricing is a bit too high and I think it’s kind of slimy that they charge you less if you have AT&T DSL (we can’t even get it here – we have Verizon FIOS) but now my family can drop to a LOWER rate plan and add the $19/mo for UNLIMITED airtime using the Microcell. My wife uses a metric buttload of minutes but 80% of the time she’s using them from home, between 5pm – 10pm and then on weekends. A Microcell would ensure that we have ample coverage. Another thing, it’ll be VERY handy during local emergencies since the microcell will be on my FIOS pipe, plugged into my own UPS. We won’t have to rely on AT&T’s own cell towers and can still make calls during inclement weather because we have a mini-cell in our own house. (Yes, we sometimes lose coverage during seriously bad weather – this affects Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T in this area.)

It’ll be well worth it for us.

Basil N Babaa

We have a Microcell as well. Took awhile to establish a connection with AT&T, but now stays connected all day and reconnects in less than 5 min. After reboot. But, even with 5 bars, it often goes to external towers and drops calls, even as Lise as 20′ away.

Not sure the reason. May try prioritizing the connection. But seems like the signal confusion with outside towers may be a problem. Need an update to the iPhone I guess to ensure prioritization to the micro.

Well see how things go… Sigh. But I guess it’s still better than 0 bars… Jut wish the calls would not drop.

john

I also have a microcell, and really I think its great, sure ATT blows for not having coverage in my house ( or even near it) but at least they have a solution to my problem now. They are not forcing you to butyone or even be on their network, but if you like me need an iPhone for business purposes this is a great option to have. I can use it in my barn about 100ft from my house if the cell is near a window, which is pretty darned good. I do have to admit that I turn it off at night for fear of irradiating myself :-) And my iPhone maps me close to Charlotte rather than Chapel Hill via the MCell as well..

Sanjay Sinha

Has any one tried out the various cellular amplifiers/boosters available from the likes of Wilson Electronics? It seems these devices come with external antennas to mount outside your home as it works over regular cellular service.
I struggle to find the logic in paying $150 to get decent voice service at my home (if ATT deems me worthy of such a privilege) Vs. paying $200 for the same improvement at my home, boat, car or for that matter at my mistress’s place.

Victor

I have used the zBoost YX500 series amplifier in a couple of different houses and they do work. They aren’t cheap though. If you have good signal outside but not inside it’s a viable option.

Doug Jones

I’m also in Raleigh and mine’s working pretty well over Time Warner cable.

I also have Vonage and have found that I must configure my router to give priority to the Vonage adapter and now the microcell to ensure good call quality.

I find it’s range to be about the same as my Wireless G access point.

One bad thing is my iPhone thinks I’m in NE Charlotte. I will call AT&T and see if they can fix that.

I signed up for the unlimited plan. As soon as I get the rebate I’m going to cancel that. Not sure if that will work.

Joseph G. Baron

I also live in Raleigh, and bought a microcell on the first day it was available. Overall I give it a C or maybe a B-. GOOD:: Setup was straightforward, but I had to move unit literally next to a window to get a GPS lock. I do get 5 bars everywhere. Handoff from microcell to real network (outside the house) seems to work fine. BAD: Though I can hear people fine, they often tell me I am breaking up, that they are getting only every other word. REALLY BAD: Sorry to say, but despite consistent 5 bars 3G service, CALLS STILL DROP!! Not as often, but even with microcell and 5 bars, I still get no warning, just beep beep “call failed”.

I can only conclude that there are more problems in AT&T network that cause dropped calls, and just having 5 bars won’t fix them.

Charles Jade

You might want to try the physical configuration that prioritizes MicroCell usage over other broadband uses. It’s on page 11 of the user manual. I haven’t had to use Priority Mode Configuration, but I have found that even with the high-end package from Time Warner I can saturate my network and cause problems for the MicroCell.

Richard A Getz

@Bee

I do not see how this is any risk to AT&T nor Cisco, except until they convince the multitudes to install such devices in the hopes of not having to install hardware (towers) themselves, while increasing their reach. Then the cables will start with ‘hey, you run your calls over our lines anyway, why not switch’.

This is brilliant on AT&T’s part. Increase coverage area without increasing cost beyond R&D. Once the testing is done, they can sell thousands of these rather than put up hundreds of towers.

Richard A Getz

Is this the $150 + monthly fee? I see no problem purchasing hardware (not $150 hardware mind you) to spray into hard to reach areas such as my house. I live a bit in a valley and I hardly hold AT&T responsible for the reception. They actually tried to put another tower up but was blocked by some lady claiming she could see it from her house.

I do think $150 is too much. Like $120 too much. And if you have to pay a monthly fee on top of that, it is a rip off!

Bee

No. You pay $150 for the equipment. You have the option of opting in for “unlimited calling over Microcell” for $20 per month in addition to the equipment purchase. They have a rebate now for $100 that is valid only if you sign up for the unlimited calling plan.

I agree with you: I really dislike AT&T as a company but I can’t blame them for not having a tower where I live. I think this is a positive step from AT&T and people who think it’s a rip-off should think again. $150 is a bit too much but it’s a new technology with high risk for AT&T and Cisco so they are trying to make some money early in case something goes wrong, just like any other company with new products. Having said that, I still think Apple should let the free market decide who the best provider for their handset is. The deal between Apple and AT&T is a rip-off; AT&T Microcell is a very good idea.

Mike Snow

Save your $150 + monthly fee. Get a Google voice number, use that instead of cell phone number directly, use Google Voice routing to send calls to mobile and/or home number. If you don’t have home phone anymore, use Google Voice (oh yea, you’re on AT&T, so until the lawyers get paid, use Skype) to make call over wireless hook up from your iphone at home.

I’d rather not talk to people than be ripped off like this.

Matthew R. Miller

I think it is a crime that AT&T is making customers pay EXTRA for a service that THEY should be providing in the first place. So now, you have to hook something up to YOUR internet connection that YOU pay for, and then ADDITIONALLY pay AT&T just to get service where AT&T advertises you will get service?

I am sorry anyone who actually pays for this is a sucker, instead call AT&T and figure out why you do not get service where they advertise you will get service and if they have no explanation they have to let you out of your contract.

Bee

Just to let people who are interested know, my new Microcell works flawlessly after activation. It took a few hours for me to realize the “second” activation (90 min) failed due to “device being out of tolerance zone”, another way to say that I was using it at a different location that I signed up for. I called them and had to explain that the GPS location they are receiving is in fact correspondent to our address in Chapel Hill, NC and it’s the map maker’s fault that they have it 3 miles down the road. They activated it within half an hour of making that call.

I have now 5 bars everywhere in my 1000sqf ranch, and 3-4 bars inside the neighbor’s house 100ft away. Call quality is excellent so far, though I’ve only been playing with it for a day. And yes I really don’t like AT&T just like many of you out there but I give them credit for coming up with a solution at last, no matter how much other people think they don’t deserve it.

Jim

This is how out of touch AT&T is. My company uses T-Mobile. We were getting bad reception on our company site (due to extreme amounts of medal, etc. I assume). T-Mobile came in and built a mini-tower right on our property. No cost to us at all. Granted, we have a few hundred phones on the account, so it’s worth it to them.

Paying extra money for the service that AT&T claims is already there is stunningly foolish. I’m shocked anyone would fall for this. You should either demand on for free, or be let out of your contract.

Charles Jade

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.

Bee

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)

LongTimeObserver

40-60 feet? Living in a tent?

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

Nigel Paterson

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?

Bee

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.

Brian Ferguson

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.

Oscar

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.

Bee

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…

Oscar

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.

Arnan de Gans

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.

Charles Jade

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.

Homero Trueba

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.

Webomatica

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.

flygracefully

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.

Tami

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.

Ferd

$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.

Charles Jade

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.

briannebailey

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.

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