Blog Post

Review: AT&T 3G MicroCell

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?


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.


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?


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.


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.


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 Responses to “Review: AT&T 3G MicroCell”

  1. Logical Lou

    I live in the country outside of Raleigh. I have had Verizon for the last 5 years because I get no service from AT&T out here. Verizon gave me 1 bar most of the time with 2 on occasion. Verizon dropped calls any time I moved around the house. So, I ended up stuck to a window when using my cell. So, based on my wife’s endless i-phone requests, I took the plunge and changed service to AT&T over the holidays.
    I have no service in the house now, but I expected that. I looked at the repeaters, but they only work if you get solid service in an outside area (where the antenna can be mounted). I don’t have that option. The true signal boosters are very expensive. I do have TWC and get great speeds from them. I ordered my micro-cell today.
    Now, I agree that the idea of paying for a service, that uses another service I’m [also] paying for in order to work, goes against my grain. However, I chose to move “far from society” and I don’t hold any of the cell providers responsible for my lack of coverage.
    Bottom line, if you are living where AT&T has good coverage outside your home, the extender/repeater is probably your best option. If you’re situation is like mine, then this is likely a better one. I forced myself to accept that I am paying for TWC broadband regardless, and for $50 (be nice to your rep and follow Bee’s advice) I should have 5 bars of 3G out here in the stix. I’ll post an update if that isn’t the case.

    I also feel the need to point out that, while many of your AT&T directed comments approach mental incompetence, all of the other carriers have an almost identical option. This solution was designed for people in my situation. If your situation is not similar, you really should look at other products and leave this post to those of us in the target demographic. At least include the other, nearly identical, vendor products in your misguided and ill informed rants/!

    Final point: I am technical by trade. In addition to the previously mentioned R&D costs, some consideration should be given to the infrastructure that allows (hop-off) routing of your cell traffic over the internet. That stuff still has to be managed for this to work.

  2. What a bunch of whiners! Democrats undoubtedly. Perhaps you should appeal to “The One”. Its ATT’s job to make a profit for its owners, and pursuant to that goal they provide a service. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. I’ve had lousy coverage at home for years and never considered for minute that my birthright was somehow being denied by ATT: I simply didn’t use my cell phone at home…problem solved! The marketplace doesn’t owe you ANYTHING that you don’t negotiate in a contract. Its a place where you make the best deal you can based on your wits and resources. BTW, I recently put in a microcell and have excellent coverage at home. I highly-recommend the product. Also, be aware that ATT is offering the product for free to “valued customers”, which is vague enough that any resourceful person ought to be able to take advantage of this.

  3. Thanks for your insights and your review of the microcell. I had been considering getting a repeater with a hard cost of several thousand dollars, including the cost to install in my home.

    Now, just so I understand — this works fine for outgoing calls, but for incoming calls you’re still tethered to the nearest AT&T cell tower only?

    If so, then this is only a quasi solution for me. In my basement office I rarely know when someone calls until I see the voicemails hours later.

    Would be great if it worked both ways, but for $150 and a rebate I may test it out anyway.

    Thanks again.

    • Logical Lou

      It will work fine for both incoming and outgoing calls as long as you are within the microcell covered area. Those comments only regarded leaving and returning to the microcell area (i.e. leave home/return home). If you have good AT&T coverage outside your home, you should be able to carry a call from the microcell to the nearest tower (leave home without dropping). However, you can not carry a call from the tower to your microcell (coming home). I do not have the microcell yet, and won’t be able to leverage this feature when I get it, but this is how it should work.

      I too chose this over the {very expensive and may work} repeater/signal booster solutions.

      Hope this helps.

  4. Hi – We have had this problem with AT&T at both of our residences, so I know it is an issue with being in an interior building. I have complained MANY times over the years and again, yesterday, I sat with customer service and wouldn’t hang up until they did something. Apparently, the Microcell is a retail product, so they do not provide them for free, but they did offer a credit on my bill to fully cover the cost of the Microcell. So, I went and got it yesterday, hooked it up in 5 minutes and I now have 5 bars in my house.

    I understand that AT&T should be responsible for providing coverage to their customers, but we live in an old home under several very mature trees and have had issues with satellite TV as well.

    I am VERY happy with this as a solution, it is working perfectly and AT&T did work with us to make this available at little to no cost. Obviously, they did have records of all of my calls and my time with tech support and I guess that helped document an ongoing issue, but still….

    I am happy that finally – my iPhone is a fully functioning phone as well as a fun little gadget :)

    I know AT&T is also offering rebates, etc, and there is a 30 day money back guarantee on the Microcell, so really if you don’t want it,cool, but if you do, try to work something out with AT&T instead of just bashing them???

  5. Lumberjack

    How stupid can you people really be. Do you actually think that your cell service provider should offer service in every corner of the US. You understand that you pay $90 a month and not $1000 right. To think that ATT should have service everywhere you go and that a dead spot near your home or through a grove of trees is ridiculous i say your a moron. Grow up its the real world. You may think that there are infinite possibilities but to all those still cant get cable at there house and live were internet is only provided over a satellite dish these devices could be a huge help. Where i live i drive hours at a time without service and that not ATT thats all service providers they put a tower near a small town and hope to pick up the majority of people. Better some reception than none i say.

    • Lumberjack,

      For the record, when I signed up with AT&T, they guaranteed that I would have service within L.A. County. However, despite the fact that I live in West L.A. in densely populated area, I cannot get reliable cell coverage. More than 50% of my cell phone calls to people with land-lines get dropped and, during “peak” hours, there are many times that the network is too jammed to let me place a call.

      I do not expect my cell phone to work EVERYWHERE I go, but when I signed up for AT&T service, I expected it to work at my home in West L.A. 24/7, which is far from the service that I’ve received.

      From my perspective, my expectations are completely reasonable, and AT&T has failed to deliver, period. IMHO, AT&T is guilty of false advertising, and to tell me that the only solution to my problem is to pay the additional fees associated with getting and using a microcell is digital highway robbery.

  6. Micki

    While it is frustrating to have to pay for equipment to get service your allready paying for it’s better than nothing. That is IF you can get it to work. I live in Long Beach Wa and work in Chinook. We spent three days trying like crazy to get this thing to work based on the Warrenton/Astoria store staff swearing it works like magic promiseing 5 bars in our home that if we are really lucky gets one bar. What a waiste of time and energy! Never got it to work at all. Then I got into a shouting match with the workers at the store when I returned it and they made it out to be my fault because I didn’t give it enough time. I know imature, but really I had just flat out had it! I had to return it and the required three G phone within the 72hr rule to avoid another worthless two year contact. What a mess! Don’t belive the hype, it may work for some but certainly NOT for all. People holding their breath for it to come to your area I’m sorry but you’re likely to be very dissapointed. I finally gave up after over three years of very poor service and am moveing on to verizon. They can’t give us local numbers but at least I can call from inside my home. After playing quite a bit with a droid my husband has decided he likes it just as well as the iphone and it will actually make calls from home too, what a concept! I do hope verizon will have better customer care…..

  7. We didn’t like having to pay extra for something we should allready have but finally were talked into it by being told people in our area (Long Beach WA) had been buying it and everyone loved it none came back. We spent three long days on and off with tech saport and nothing! It didn’t work even though we more than met all the system requirements. The kicker is we got stuck with fees to return stuff and I got into an arguement with a sales person who rudely told me it was OUR choice to return it. As if I am going to keep stuff that doesn’t work, ya that’s fair. I over reacted and had some rather loud choice words that embarrassed my husband so that’s was yet another arguement about not wanting to be taken advantage of or lied to! REALLY Crummy experience!

  8. Jeff Reynolds

    I just purchased an AT&T MicroCell and installed it in my home in Modesto, CA last Friday. Ever since installing it, all cell phones that operate on the MicroCell in my home and have a GPS are showing that my home is located in San Rafael, CA which is a good 1-1/2 hour drive and 80+ miles away. No one at AT&T is able to explain why. My map apps, my Yellow Pages app and every app that utilizes my GPS for current location show me as being in San Rafael when I am at home in Modesto. I also have to dial the area code here in Modesto to make a call to a Modesto phone number. Prior to installing the MicroCell, I only had to dial the seven digit number with no area code. I’d like to know if anyone else has had this problem and if they have been able to correct it.

  9. Service sucking varies from company to company, I have worked for various customer service call centers for different isp companies and cell phone service companies and it is the same whinning in every single service, its either the cost, or the signals ot the tech support or customer service that sucks…. this page is no different…

  10. It sounds like a load of bull to me. I have an iPhone and pay for service for that already. Paying an extra $150 plus $19.99 a month if I don’t want to use my cell minutes. AND you have to have an existing broadband internet connection for whatever that cost in your market. Sounds like it would be cheaper for smart phone users to just buy a wireless router and pay the monthly fee to Skype ($2.95 for US and Canada unlimited). Oh and even though you’re connected through your broadband connection all your data usage counts against your cell phone data plan. What a rip! It only makes sense to get this if you live in a place where buildings block your signal, but still has great broadband internet; you DON’T have a wi-fi enabled smart phone; AND you make/receive all calls at home from your cell (and you get called 100 times a day). I don’t see this being cost effective any other way. A device like this would truly shine in rural areas where there is almost no service AND no broadband internet (kinda like a wireless repeater but for 3G). Every time I visit my parents I feel like I’m going back in time 30 years. No cable (not enough houses to run the line comcast says), no broadband (no cable, too far from verizon for DSL), and horrid cell phone reception.

  11. I’ve had my Microcell for about 60 days now …Overall I am happy with the service… I live in an area all 3 major Cell networks say I should get great service …But that is not the case for any other them in my home. I installed the Microcell right next to my Linksys G/N routrs and have not experince any issues on any of the networks and does not seem to impact when I stream movies on my Linksys network. Over all the sound quality is good. Once and a while I get and delay when I down loading and up load large data files. Voice, Data and Txt work great on the device…. And for those making comments on AT&T using this device… Sprint and Verizon have simular devices . I also packup this device and take it from and Sandiego home to my home in Tucson and with in mate of 20 minutes it is setup and working … For me it works well , and when I make calls and transion off of the Microcell device when Ieaving the house, or the reverse, I do not loose calls. I like the options of paying $19 a month to off set the minutes on my plan to free miinutes ….This allowed me to drop my base minutes on my family plan and save more than the $19.00… This solutions works for me…. Do your research before you jump in…

  12. I am more worried about the connection to the MicroCell. My ethernet connection is on the back of my router and I already have it in use. If I hook it up to my airport extreme will the bars be as strong. I also want to Know if you can hook it up to an airport express . Any suggestions would be helpful thanks , John.

  13. I am indeed curious to know at what the carrier frequency does the ATT 3G femtocell operate in. I am sure if it were in the newly auctioned 700 MHz bands, instead of the more conventional 1700/2100/AWS bands, all your multipath problems, which prevent reception beyond a couple of walls within your home, would have been solved.

  14. Now that AT&T has announced nationwide rollout, does anyone know if you have to leave the microcell near the windows for GPS ALL THE TIME, or once you get lock you can move it closer to the center of the house?


    • The Microcell must be able to see the GPS satellites at all times. However, your house, like ours, may be sufficiently transparent to GPS signals for it to work even in the center. Failing that, you can buy an aftermarket external antenna, put that where it works, and run the cable to the Microcell. This configuration is officially unsupported, but lots of folks on the AT&T 3G Microcell forums have reported it works.

  15. I am moving to an area in NC that is so remote, there is NO cell signal from any provider – too many hills and valleys. This device should allow me to use AT$T 3G cellphone in my house. Does anyone know if it will work with 768/768 down/up? I’ll never use more than two phones at a time, and will not use it for any data/applications. I noticed on the website, it says 1.5/256 recommended for “best results.” Anyone have experience with less than 1.5 down speed? (By the way, all wireless providers have these same devices – Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile. It’s not just AT&T. Verizon charges $250 for theirs!)

  16. Brian Ferguson

    I just returned my unit to 3G MicroCell to the AT&T store. The 3G MicroCell performed exactly as advertised and on my 2 iPhones I had 5 bars inside the house and out to the drive. The phones would seamlessly switch to the 2 bar Edge network as I left the driveway without dropping a call. The problem is that I have two AT&T non-3G phones on my family plan, a non 3G AT&T Blackberry from work…and my security system uses AT&T wireless (non 3G) rather than a landline for security events.
    The 3G MicroCell rendered all the non-3G cell phones useless. Calls can’t complete, calls drop if they even get through, etc. Pull the plug on the 3G MicroCell and the problem goes away. Essentially the 3G MicroCell rendered all my non-3G AT&T phones useless in the confines of my house. The AT&T response was that I should upgrade all my other phones to 3G or “walk to the far side of the house or outside if you need to use a non-3G phone”. The representative claimed that AT&T was quite clear that the 3G MicroCell does not work with non-3G phones…I asked why it was not clear that the device renders non-3G phones useless…for that they have no answer.
    I suspect that if this was used in an Apartment, and your neighbors have non-3G phones…this may be causing real issues for those users. My ADT Security system was unable to place an out going call to the monitoring station while the 3G MicroCell was powered on.

    • The fact that a (about-to-be) marketable product by ATT actually interferes with the operation of a perfectly legal home security system (which could be viewed as a personalized 911 emergency service in the eyes of the law) should be banned, and ATT ought to be sued to oblivion. BTW, does this thing allow 911 calls through?

    • Rick S

      I installed my Microcell a few days ago, and after reading this post tested my ADT system which uses AT&T cell to communicate. I had no issues, ADT received all signals.

  17. I encourage all of you to log a complaint with the FCC. This is why that agency exists. AT&T wireless service does not work as advertised.!input.action?form_page=2000B

    I installed a $300 repeater in my house last year to fix the terrible signal (which ironically is about 8 miles from AT&T Wireless HQ in Atlanta). 20-30% of my calls dropped like this and the voice quality was awful.

    I paid $150 for the Microcell, now 50-75% of my calls drop. Yesterday I had four dropped calls in one 45 minute conversation. I have AT&T Uverse for my Internet connection. So literally, every bit of equipment and service belongs to AT&T, yet they can’t get it to work.

    I pay almost $300 per month for wireless service that just doesn’t work. It’s a crime.

  18. It’s not that we have low IQ’s Dave, just different circumstances. I already owned my iphone when I purchased my house but did not check cell coverage here since the bankers and realtors were using their cells at the house. Just can’t use AT&T here…..No service most of the time. We purchased the 3G tower (made them give us the $150 credit on our bill that it cost) and we cannot even get the tower going and it has been 2 days since we purchased. Hellloooooo Verizon…

  19. Attention AT&T complainers, what’s the deal with you?

    When I bought my iPhone I had 30 days to keep it or return it. Why would anyone keep the thing knowing the coverage sucks at home or where you plan to use it the most? How is this AT&Ts shortcoming?

    I am in Jacksonville, FL or Queens 90% of the time and have had no problem with AT&T. It is a little slower in Queens but no dropped calls. When I downgraded my plan to use my 2500 accumulated rollover minutes they disappeared. I called AT&T to complain and they reinstated them. That’s good–yes good–customer service in my book.

    Now dropped calls where there is good 3G coverage is another thing and is AT&Ts failing. But the gist of the post–bashing them due to home coverage–is not their failing, it’s failing IQ of the purchasers!

  20. ok i read up on it, you set it up so only your cell phones work on it, but still this is a huge rip off. you’re paying maybe thousands a year to at&t…. why would you buy this cell? if you’re not getting service in your own home, at&t needs to fix that, not you, and especially not with your internet bandwidth. Next thing you know, internet service prices will shoot through the roof. hell no.
    if you buy this, most likely you’re a blind fool.

  21. Well you neighbors will not get the signal, since it is limited to a set of numbers – up to 10 – that you define. Mine drops calls all the time, which is a real pain, but it is better than no service… If iPhone was available on Verizon, I’d be there in a second.

    • that sucks man. i’m sorry about that. my comment about the blind fool – not true for everyone. if you don’t get service in your home, that sucks. really at&t just makes me sick.
      the five bars BS doesn’t really matter if you have 3mbps internet bandwidth. we should all make a revolution against at&t. who’s with me?

  22. I just got an advertisement from AT&T about this thing. Honestly they should be paying you to run this thing from your house. Instead of using the cell towers you’re paying monthly for, you will have your monthly phone bill and be using bandwidth from your internet connection to talk on your cell phone. Don’t forget other people passing by or your neighbors will have five bars because of your miniature cell tower that is connected to your internet.
    Really if you run this thing, you should get a huge discount on your bill.
    AT&T is a rip off and they’re taking all our money.
    Lord help us.

    • Brian Ferguson

      “Don’t forget other people passing by or your neighbors will have five bars because of your miniature cell tower that is connected to your internet.”

      Not true. You have to register the phone numbers that will be able to access the 3G MicroCell. You can register up to 10 numbers, but only 4 of those numbers can use the device at the same time.

  23. @Stephen: No. All the microcell does is make your cell phone work better. It has nothing whatever to do with POTS lines and cordless phones.

    However, when I am home, I use a bluetooth-to-POTS gateway box (a “Cell2Tel”) so that my cordless phones work with my iPhone, and the iPhone works better because of the microcell. It’s the best of both worlds: The iPhone can stay plugged in and charging, but I can still use the cordless phones that are stationed all around the house.

  24. Michael King

    It is only going to get worse when the dems get rid of cell phones because of cancer risk.

    In the late 80’s cell phones gave off more radiation, because they had more power. Now that is limited.

  25. Michael King

    Charles, have you tried the Zboost, or any other repeaters?

    Looks like it takes more to install but you dont have to worry about your internet connection, or your modem screwing up. Still pretty easy to install.

    I live about a mile or 2 from a cell tower and I have bad reception in my house. Unless I get close to a window or go outside. When I am near a patch of trees on the road outside of my home I get no service. When I pass the trees I get 5 bar 3G.

    It is my understanding that cell towers carry all service providers if they choose to put hardware at the site. For the most part, they rent the space from the tower owner. Some providers might not rent space from every tower. I got this information from my place of work, which deals with verizon, att and other providers.

    I can tell you that at my work, which is very close to home, sprint and verizon get better service, but still not perfect.

    I stick with ATT because everyone I know uses it and it cuts cost down because we can talk for free. Also the Iphone kicks a$$. I don’t care what you say, it’s still the best phone out there. Some people will pay to have perfect reception. Some won’t.

    Today its a fact that no provider has perfect service. Maybe back in the 70’s or 80’s with your land line. The best solution is to move to a big city with no trees.



    I’ve spoken to reps and techs, at AT&T for several hours with respects to all of these issues mentioned and they agree about the poor service, ultimately it’s the corporate heads that need convincing… It is “our duty and responsibility” NOT to purchase and except this bogus mircrocell and additional service fee’s!!! At the end of the day, assuming the position does nothing to address the long term issues, nor promote or improve the standards, business ethics and practices of this company. By purchasing this product the consumer is creating a dominoe effect for other company’s to follow. This will migrate into other areas of service, i.e. internet / cable provider’s, etc… Purchasing this product is like putting a band aid over a pimple.

    AT&T should be held accountable for providing a service in which they promote. We signed up in good faith and deliver our end of our contractual agreement by paying on time monthly. As soon as we’re late their ready to charge a late fee, followed by discontinuing your service. What’s the difference? Their late with service and at times no service is available. We should be able to serve them with a late fee, as well as cancel our contract without penalties. Trust me, I have already asked to be let go of my contract for free… I was experiencing these problems with my 2G IPhone and was told if I upgraded to the newer IPhone on a 3G line I wouldn’t have these issues, instead it was worse. Had I thoroughly researched this issue as of now, I would have known in advance how poor the service was going to be. I would have held out until I found a provider that would support the IPhone with better service. Look at the stat’s,

    Again, this is a corporate bail out at our expense, another slap in the face to the consumer. It’s a fork you, pay me!!

    At the bare minimum, the microcell and service should be free. Apple also should be held accountable, they must intervene and have AT&T take the necessary actions to address and fix these issues, otherwise make the Iphone a NON-exclusive service. They should follow T-Mobiles approach by building mini towers on property for free. Truth of the matter, if the service and support was available through other providers, i.e. Verizon, (rated #1 for cell service) we would not have to be subjected to AT&T’s consumer’s negligence. Competition reduces and open’s markets, giving the consumer more option’s and better service.

    In conclusion, please refrain from purchasing any additional gimmicks to improve our service at the expenses we are already paying for, there is no justification, it’s completely unacceptable! Remind yourself of the long term effects, cause they do…