This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2009-09-20 at 10:57 p.m.
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AT&T Reveals Details on 3G MicroCell Home Base Station

by Glenn Fleishman

AT&T has launched a Web site with details about its 3G MicroCell [1], 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.

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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 [3] - 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 [4] 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 [5] 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.