Review: AT&T 3G MicroCell

AT&T MicroCell Introduction:If you’ve been reading my blog or listening to my various podcasts, you’ll know that I love my iPhone, but have been very unhappy with my AT&T service the past year. Three years ago, when I bought my first iPhone, I was living in a large city and fortunate to have excellent cellular coverage. I paid my $175 early termination fee to switch from Verizon to AT&T and was as happy as I could be with my new iPhone and AT&T.

About a year ago, I made a job change and moved back to my hometown. While I love my new job and being closer to family, I’ve been plagued by poor AT&T coverage. My current city has multiple dead zones in highly populated areas and in general suffers from poor connectivity. It’s quite common to be in an area with 5 bars of coverage yet calls go directly to voicemail or text messages are delayed, sometimes hours. Making matters worse, I live in one of those dead zones and literally have no service inside my home. Outside isn’t much better, I can usually only maintain a call for a couple of minutes before it drops.

My AT&T contract is up on July 11th and I knew that a new iPhone would be released about that time. With AT&T unable to provide me any kind of answers, I was really struggling to decide what I was going to do. Short of the iPhone changing to another carrier, something that I think will happen but will be later rather than sooner, my only hope was the promise of the AT&T 3G MicroCell. I watched the WWDC keynote with mixed emotions. Lured by the appeal of the iPhone 4, but at the same time dreading signing a new contract and committing myself to two more years of cell phone purgatory. But something else happened on June 7th that was perhaps more appealing to me than anything Steve Jobs had to say in his Keynote address, the mythical 3G MicroCell came to my city.

What is the MicroCell: I’m not going to get into all the technical specifics of the MicroCell. I’m sure there are data sheets you can read. In short, the MicroCell is a mini 3G tower for your home. The MicroCell uses your home broadband connection to connect your call to a local AT&T tower. From there, your call is sent out on the AT&T network. It’s using a broadband connection to bridge the coverage gap between your home and the tower.

The device needs to be connected via Ethernet to your home network. There are various ways to connect the device depending on your home setup. It also has a GPS chip inside that is used to confirm the location of the MicroCell. AT&T says this is a requirement for the e911 service so emergency responders will know your location.

Requirements: The MicroCell only works with 3G capable phones on the AT&T network. If you have a first generation iPhone or other non-3G cell phone it won’t do you any good. You are also required to have a broadband internet connection to connect the device. Lastly, AT&T’s network must also be ready for the MicroCell. In order for the MicroCell to communicate with the towers, there must have been an update to the towers in your area. The MicroCell isn’t available everywhere, but interestingly, availability opened up to a slew of new areas on June 7th, the day the iPhone 4 was announced. Coincidental? I think not.

You can check AT&T’s website to see if the MicroCell is available in your area. If not, you’ll be prompted to enter an email address and they will supposedly notify you when the MicroCell arrives. This didn’t work for me. The MicroCell has been available in my area for a week now, but I haven’t received AT&T’s email message. The only way I knew the MicroCell was available is because I’ve bookmarked the availability website and make a point to check it every day. So, don’t trust the email system to notify you.

AT&T LogoCost and Plans: The MicroCell costs $149 to purchase from AT&T and must be associated with an active account. You can buy the device outright to use with your current plan. Without an optional MicroCell plan, any minutes used will be deducted from your minute package.

AT&T has an optional $20 a month plan that will allow all calls made from the MicroCell to be free. If you’re the type of person who makes a lot of calls from home, then this might be worth considering. I’m already on the lowest cost voice plan and have plenty of unused rollover minutes, so the extra expense is not worth it for me.

However, at the time I bought the MicroCell AT&T was running a promotion where you would receive a $100 rebate if you signed up for the $20 monthly MicroCell plan. I quizzed the store manager and read all the fine print on the brochure I was given and could not see any requirement that you have to keep the plan. The manager at my local AT&T store assured me that I could sign up for the plan for one month, send in my rebate and cancel the plan once my rebate came 4-6 weeks later. I’m not sure I believe him. But I got all of his information and decided to give it a try. My guess is this will come back to bite me, but I’ll let you know. If you decide to try this, make sure you fully investigate the terms and conditions and are comfortable doing this.

There was also another rebate option for customers who used AT&T as their home ISP. This didn’t apply to me, but check your area to see if there are promotions that may reduce the cost of the MicroCell.

Setup: Before setting up the MicroCell you must register it online with you AT&T account using the device’s serial number and your address. You also must register the numbers of the phones that you want to allow to access the device. The MicroCell allows you to register up to 10 AT&T phones that can have access to the device. Up to four devices can be connected at a time. So you’re not sharing your MicroCell with the neighborhood, only the friends and family you choose. You can register any AT&T phone number, it doesn’t have to be someone you share a plan with and you can modify the numbers as needed.

There are a couple of ways to connect the MicroCell to your home network. If you don’t use a router, the MicroCell sits between your modem and your computer. It has a port to connect to your modem and a port to pass through the connection to your computer. If you use a router, you can plug the MicroCell into any open ethernet port just like you would any other connected device. Lastly, you can plug the MicroCell in between your modem and router.

If you don’t have a router, or you don’t have a router with any wired ethernet ports, then you don’t have much choice in the setup, you have to connect the MicroCell between your modem and computer. However, I think most people have some kind of wired router in their home. In this case, you want to give a little thought to about how you want to connect the device to your network. When active, the MicroCell works just like another device on your network, it’s going to be sending and receiving data and will impact the overall speed of your network.

By connecting the MicroCell in line before your router, you give it priority over you other connected devices. When you’re on a call, your network speed to your other devices will suffer, but your call will take priority. The only problem with this setup is if the MicroCell has a problem, it will bring down the entire network. If you connect it just as another device to your router, it will share bandwidth with your other devices and if you’re doing any heavy downloading or file transfers while you’re on a call, the call quality may suffer.

In my case, I opted to setup the MicroCell before my router so it would have priority. I figured that I would want my phone call to take priority over any file downloads if they happened to be going on at the same time. However, the first day I setup my MicroCell I had some kind of hiccup that brought down the MicroCell and my home network and required a restart of everthing. I should note that this happened during the initial setup of the device. The MicroCell has now been running fine for 5 days without any type of problem or network interruption. I haven’t noticed any kind of slow-down to my network while the MicroCell is in use, although I don’t usually check the status of my file transfers while I’m on a call. But while idle, I haven’t noticed any network hit.

From time to time you may need to reset the MicroCell just like you would any other router or connected device. Be aware that the device takes some time to power up and connect to AT&T’s network. Although subsequent restarts don’t take as long as the initial setup, you can expect it will be 10 – 20 minutes after restarting the MicroCell before it will be ready for use.

Because my ISP doesn’t have any way to check my bandwidth usage I can’t speak to how much data the MicroCell is using. I would imagine that data usage would be in line with a VOIP telephone service like Skype or Vonage. If you are on an ISP that caps data usage, you’ll probably want to keep an eye on this.

When first connected, the MicroCell can take up to 90 minutes to activate. AT&T says that you need to place the MicroCell near a window so it can get a GPS lock and that this is the cause for most activation problems. Once activated, you can usually move the MicroCell to another location within your house, but AT&T says the it needs to be fairly close to a window so it can transmit GPS information.

In my case, the MicroCell was about 6-8 feet from a large window with a clear path to the window and I was able to acquire a GPS lock without any problem. I’ve since moved the MicroCell a little further away from a window to sit behind my TV on my entertainment console and it still seem s to function without any problem about 8-10 feet away from a window.

The initial setup of the MicroCell took me about 45 minutes from the time I plugged it in until it was fully operational. There’s probably another 10 minutes or so of time to register the device and plug in the appropriate phone numbers. The first time your phones connect to the device may a while. Once the device status showed as ready, it took my iPhone 3G about 10 minutes to find it. Sometimes turning your phone off and back on again will force it to go out and look for a connection to find the MicroCell. Your phones will have some kind of icon indicating they’re connected to the MicroCell rather than a standard cell tower. Mine displays “M-Cell.”

Finding the right placement of the MicroCell can be a bit of a compromise. It has to be in a location relatively close to a window, that has power and a wired connection to your router or modem. You also want to place the MicroCell in an area of your home that is centrally located to make sure that you can cover your entire house. One more complicating factor – the MicroCell is fairly big, and it’s pretty ugly. The device is much larger than a standard wireless router, it’s got an odd “upside down Y” shape and it’s bright white and orange. I ended up putting my MicroCell on my entertainment console in my living room and hid it behind the TV.

iPhone with M-Cell LogoUsage: Now, for the part you’ve all been waiting for…does the MicroCell work? In a word…yes. I live in a 2,500 square foot townhouse with two levels and a rooftop terrace. I have 5 bars of coverage throughout my entire house and on the terrace. I also have MicroCell coverage on my porch and out in my garage and driveway. It’s about the same coverage area as my wireless router.

I also setup a MicroCell in my parents home. They have about the same square footage as me, except their house is spread out over one floor and their square footage is more “horizontal” where my square footage is more “vertical.” In my parents house they have coverage throughout the house, although it does drop to 3 or 4 bars on the outskirts of the house. Still, much better than their prior level of service.

I have made several calls on the MicroCell in the past week and have never dropped a call. One call was over two hours long. I am very pleased with the coverage, as far as I can tell the MicroCell works as advertised. Of course, it’s going to be susceptible to interference so the build of your home will make a difference.

The MicroCell is supposed to hand calls off to the local cell towers when you leave the range of your MicroCell. Just like cell towers hand calls off when you’re traveling. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. Calls transfer out, but don’t transfer in. Calls initiated on the cell tower do not transfer to the MicroCell. So I can’t start a call on the road and then take it into my house. (In my case it only takes a few seconds of walking into my house before a call drops.) However calls started at home should transfer out to a tower. This is the only problem I’ve found so far with the MicroCell, hopefully it will be resolved with a future software update.

Conclusion: Overall, the MicroCell seems to work as advertised and has solved the bulk of my coverage problems. I’ve gone from no service to 5 bars within my home and haven’t noticed any negative side effects of having the MicroCell connected to my network.

I’ve heard from several friends across the US that the MicroCell suddenly became available in their area on June 7th as well. If you’ve been waiting like me for a MicroCell, you may want to re-check your availability.

Editorial: I’ve tried to be very objective in my review of the MicroCell, but I do need to throw in some editorial comments here, both good and bad.

I have been angry for a very long time about the situation with my AT&T coverage. I spent nearly $100 a month on cell phone service that I couldn’t use. I understand that AT&T can’t guarantee coverage inside buildings, but my issue is outside as well. Additionally, AT&T’s coverage maps clearly show that my area should be blanketed by excellent 3G coverage. That’s just not the case. When investigating this issue with AT&T last year, they even sent out network testers who verified that despite the coverage maps, my area was a dead zone and the only solution was to build a new tower. Of course, the maps still show this area as having excellent coverage despite AT&T knowing better.

Quite frankly, the idea of me having to pay AT&T $150 for a MicroCell and having to use my own broadband internet connection to compensate for their poor service that I’m already paying for, is offensive. If I had excellent service outside my home or if the maps showed poor or no coverage, I would have no problem with AT&T. But that’s simply not the case. My fear is that AT&T will use the MicroCell service, at the expense of their customers, as a reason not to beef up their network. The MicroCell works great in my home, but it does nothing about the poor network service around town.

On the other hand, I’m very happy to have the option to use a MicroCell in my home. It’s an a lifeline for people like me who otherwise wouldn’t have service. I understand that AT&T can’t cover every square inch of the US with a reliable network. I’m sure if they could do so in a manner that was reasonably cost effective they would. I also don’t have to stay with AT&T. I could switch to another carrier, but I don’t because I love my iPhone. So I’ve made a choice to tolerate a sub-par network to have my preferred phone.

Currently, AT&T’s official line is that they are not discounting the MicroCell under any circumstances. I had more than one AT&T rep read me that official policy over the last week. The store managers claim that they have no authority to discount a MicroCell and the first line telephone support apparently doesn’t have the authority to do so either. That being said, and in full disclosure, after a little “gentle pressure” and refusal to accept no for an answer, I was able to work my way up the chain and explain my situation. I received a number of credits on my bill from AT&T that will just about offset the price of my MicroCell. (I never once played the “do you know who I am?” card or told them I was a podcaster or blogger – I doubt that would have made any difference anyway.)

One thing that helped me was using AT&T’s “Mark the Spot” iPhone app to report network problems. Much to my surprise, the higher level AT&T rep was able to see how many reports I had logged of poor service. So AT&T is at least paying attention to the reports it generates. Of course, your experience may vary. I’ve always found polite persistence to be the key in obtaining help from customer service. Please don’t yell at the salesclerk who has no ability to help you.

My feelings towards AT&T would be much more positive if they had some kind of official program in place to provide MicroCells to customers either free or at a greatly reduced cost if they had a documented and legitimate coverage issue. My hope is that they’ll change their current “no discount” policy and help other customers who are in situations like mine.

All things considered, the MicroCell has changed my daily life. I can’t even begin to explain to you how nice it is to have a working phone again after living a year with this constant frustration. As I said, I had been angry with AT&T for a very long time, and after about 5 minutes of starting at my phone with 5 bars, I felt a lot of that anger lift away.

AT&T’s network still has much to be desired in my area. But the MicroCell has just about resolved my issues with making and receiving calls at home which takes care of most of my problems. The availability of the MicroCell has made up my decision that I’m okay with staying with AT&T for another two years and I plan to upgrade to the iPhone 4 on day one.

Thanks for reading my monster MicroCell review. I’d love for you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.