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AT&T Reveals Details on 3G MicroCell Home Base Station

AT&T has launched a Web site with details about its 3G MicroCell, a home cellular base station that provides enhanced coverage in your home for regular AT&T 3G mobile phones (including the iPhone), routing calls over a broadband connection. Such femtocells, as they are called in the industry, use licensed frequencies owned by cellular companies to improve signal strength and thus voice call quality.


Details slipped months ago about AT&T's plan for such a home base station, which AT&T has been testing with an unknown number of customers and its own employees. The Web site requires a ZIP code to check for availability, and AT&T said - according to Engadget - that only Charlotte, N.C., residents are currently eligible. Still, this marks a transition into commercial availability.

These tiny base stations support voice and data connections via any 3G-capable phone that can work on AT&T's cellular network. This is distinct from T-Mobile's longstanding unlicensed mobile access (UMA) service, which uses ordinary Wi-Fi for the local connection, but requires one of a dozen or so specially designed dual-mode handsets and smartphones offered by the company. (T-Mobile's UMA handsets now typically cost no more than regular 2G and 3G phones.)

Femtocells require a GPS receiver, and typically come with extremely long antennas. The GPS provides emergency E911 call location to operators, but also confirms the location of a femtocell, necessary to ensure that a carrier employs only the frequencies for which it's licensed in a given geographic area - and that the base station isn't used illegally outside the United States.

InformationWeek reported that the 3G MicroCell will cost $150, but that AT&T will provide a $100 rebate for customers who sign up for a calling plan. Engadget reproduced a price sheet that shows AT&T offering unlimited calling with the base station at $9.99 per month for AT&T landline and broadband subscribers, and $19.99 per month for all others. Engadget relayed news from AT&T that the price is in testing, too.

Sprint and Verizon both offer femtocells. Sprint charges $99.99 for the base station, $4.99 per month for its use in improving coverage, and an additional $10 per month for unlimited calls on an individual or family plan. Verizon charges $249.99 for the base station, with no monthly fee but has no calling plans available. With AT&T's pricing options, the company is essentially offering both kinds of services: for $150 flat, you get better coverage; for $50 and a monthly fee, you get coverage and unlimited calling.

Sprint and Verizon offer only 2G voice calling with their femtocells. The AT&T 3G MicroCell, as one might guess from its name, works with 3G voice and data. While 3G smartphones from AT&T almost all include Wi-Fi for the data side of the equation, the cheaper, so-called "feature phones" with 3G support commonly lack Wi-Fi, although that's starting to change with newer models.

Carriers love femtocells because they shift traffic (and the expense of moving calls and data) from their expensive-to-operate, capital-intensive cellular networks to cheap broadband - broadband that the customer has installed and paid for separately.

However, cell subscribers may grow to love in-home base stations for a similar reason: they've already paid for the broadband, and the additional load of voice and data calls is negligible, while the reward of unlimited calls - without paying significantly higher monthly fees - and better reception seems of high value.


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Comments about AT&T Reveals Details on 3G MicroCell Home Base Station
(Comments are closed.)

Scott Rose  2009-09-20 23:52
Not sure why AT&T requires this product to be in certain zip codes. The one area that has no AT&T service at all -- the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles (home to hundreds of thousands of people) -- does NOT qualify on AT&T's zip code availability checker. So the one area that desperately needs AT&T service STILL can't get AT&T service with this product.
It's because the product is only being launched in select markets first for the soft launch. It will be available to the rest of the country soon.
P T Withington  2009-09-21 05:55
It would be nice to know if you can get one of these _without_ unlimited calling. Suppose I just want to be able get a decent signal? Is there an option to just use cell minutes to "pay" the rent on this box?
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-21 07:17
I'm guessing no, from a recent conversation with AT&T, but I may be wrong. Verizon is marketing this entirely for that purpose, and Sprint has hedged its bets.
will it be available in rural areas? i have at&t land lines, but no dsl. does it take their dsl?
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-21 10:14
It doesn't require AT&T's DSL or fiber service, but the test the firm is conducted offers a price discount if you are an AT&T broadband customer. Likely, it requires 1.5 Mbps/768 Kbps broadband at a minimum.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-21 10:14
The article has been updated based on information from AT&T reported by Engadget that the trial was launched only in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Bob Peterson  2009-09-21 16:43
Funny. People have eagerly ditched their landline phones for cell phones, and now are going to install an even more expensive femtocell to recover the quality they gave up. (I know I'm exaggerating, but the picture is funny.)
More expensive? When I dropped normal land-line for Vonage it was a drop from $55/m to $25/month. And then I dropped Vonage.
Right now I use Google-voice (free) to connect to Skype Pro ($2.70/m) and my iPhone. My mobile bill when I still had a landline was $110/m with taxes. My current AT&T bill is $122/m. I'm $43 ahead.
Even if I got the $20/m plan from AT&T (which I would never ever do) I'd still be ahead. I _Might_ consider spending $10 a month for a femtocell because the dial-up process for Skype is 'too hard' for certain members of the household, but no more than that. If AT&T wants me as a customer, they'll have to drop their 'all others' price.
After all, I can use my broadband for Vonage at $25 and I get unlimited calls to the US. And Canada. And 59 other countries.Why would I pay nearly the same for a much more limited VOIP line?
I don't see what AT&T or the other carriers are even offering for that monthly fee. If this box is only serving to connect your cell phone to your internet access and routes your call over the internet (i.e. VOIP), what service is AT&T providing for $20 a month (or Verizon for $50)? Sounds like another rip-off.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-21 17:36
It's better indoor coverage coupled with unlimited minutes (for a household) without a per-line unlimited minutes' usage plan.

For some people, they could replace Vonage, Comcast VoIP, or a wired landline ($35 to $55 per month including long distance) for $10 to $20 per month.

And, because it covers all the lines in a family plan, a household could see significant long-distance and other fee reductions over other options.
i am sure that tons of people will save money under the new system especially if they are using their company-supplied phones at home and don't need a land line anymore.
for a mere fixed cost of 250usd someone in suburban ny can walk away from phone bills forever and no longer needs tricky google voice or call forwarding stratagems to be accessible.
From the Tidbit article I gather that one option is buying the box for $150 one-time fee, and no monthly fee, if all you want is to extend coverage in your house. Does anyone know if this is truly an option? (e.g., no calling plan beyond what's already on the iPhone.)
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-22 09:16
I hope you're not gathering this; I state it explicitly in the article.

AT&T may choose to change this pricing plan (this is in testing, after all), but the reports indicate that you can either get a subsidized microcell for $50 with a subscription plan, or pay $150 (no subsidy) and have no monthly fee.
zahadum  2009-09-22 08:31
what makes u think that one of the reasons for the gps in the femtocells is due to some unspecified prohibition against exporting / using a femtocell outside USA.

isn't this just FUD?