Blog Post

Final Word on AT&T 3G MicroCell: Meh

For many iPhone users held hostage by AT&T’s (s att) 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 (s vz) iPhone.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Metered Mobile Data Is Coming and Here’s How

25 Responses to “Final Word on AT&T 3G MicroCell: Meh”

  1. I bought an iPhone 4 before the announcement that Verizon was given the green light to sell. Love the iPhone hate AT&T. I’m in a very populated area but 1 bar reception and plenty of dropped calls at home even on a good day. I was sucked into AT&T’s 3G MicroCell when I complained about the service. 2 walls and 30 feet away from the 5,000 sq. feet advertised coverage and the MicroCell can’t be found. How they get away with this junk is amazing!

  2. I do not get any cell reception in my home. I recently started paying $30 a month for a land line through my cable company just so I wouldn’t be in a black hole.

    I just recently found out that a local provider, US Cellular, gets service just fine in my apartment complex but no major providers do.

    Why do I need to spend $120 a month on my iphone plan AND another $30 on a local landline, when I could just get a $40 month plan through a local provider and be done with it.

    I called AT&T and told them I wanted out of my contract so I could cancel, and surprisingly they offered me this device for free. They said they put the credit on my account and I just have to pick it up at the AT&T store near my apartment.

    I’m a bit skeptical. None of my previous encounters with their customer service lead me to believe they are able to resolve an issue with only one phone call from me.

    I’m going to get it tonight after work, keeping my fingers crossed.

  3. I actually get *more* dropped calls on the microcell than on AT&T’s network. My iPhone has been replaced with a brand new one by Apple, twice. And AT&T has replaced both my SIM card and the microcell.

    These devices simply do not work correctly together.

    I’ll probably cancel the $20 microcell plan and get $3/month unlimited U.S. Skype calling. Skype is rock solid on WiFi.

  4. We have 2 iphone 3G’s in our household and another 3G phone (the Samsung Impression) for our daughter, all on AT&T. We all got crappy service in our Phoenix-area home and complained to AT&T to no avail. We were told we lived in a dead zone on the network. When the 3G Microcell became available we looked into it but refused to pay for a device to provide what we already pay AT&T for: reliable home service. Last month we were given a free 3G Microcell. It helps but has to be reset from time to time and still drops some calls. At least we aren’t paying extra for the 3G Microcell.

  5. I’ve had my Micro-Cell about two weeks (tomorrow). I located the unit upstairs and it seemed to work ok. But I moved it downstairs into my office (even closer to a window) and now I have to reset it twice a day. Has their been any discussion on why they have to be reset?

  6. A verizon iphone?? Are you Serious. YOu do realize that the iphone offers Talk and Web browsing at the same time, that the Crap CDMA netwrok cannot handle. Also verizon may have a more “dependable” 3g network, but all 3g stands for is 3rd generation. Not all 3rd generations are built alike. one is larger and way slower, one is smaller but way faster. When and if verizon does get an iphone they are going to need some serious network upgrades. think about it… ATT has over 70 percent of the nations smartphone users, if verizon had that number of SP users the network would die. Just saying Verizon is a 6 lane racetrack with 4 racers, ATT is a 16 lane track with 16 racers. Think about what you are saying before you write such garbage.

    ps. i know my grammar isnt the best, but the facts are true.

  7. Andrew

    I have a terrible signal at my house in NC. I don’t get any better signal at my house on Verizon than AT&T. I don’t get all the Verizon evangelism. It’s not that much better, because Verizon’s map DOES NOT take into account topography (lay of the land). It’s 3G is not that impressive. Also, if a Verizon iPhone does come out, it’ll just weigh down Verizon’s service and people will complain about that as well. AT&T has superior customer service and Verizon owes me $125 from a 30 day trial on wireless internet. I’ll stick with AT&T

  8. 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.

    • 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.

      • Brandt

        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.

  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.

    • 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. Rick Doyaler

    Meh indeed.


    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.

  11. 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)

  12. Brian J

    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.

  13. boone51

    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.

  14. 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.

  15. Matthew

    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.

    • 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.

  16. 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.