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AT&T 3G MicroCell Promises a Cell Tower for Your Home

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After more than a year of leaked details and trials, AT&T announced it would ship its 3G MicroCell for $149.99 in mid-April 2010. The 3G MicroCell is a femtocell, a short-range cellular base station designed to augment coverage in a home or small office, with traffic - both voice and data - handled over subscriber-provided broadband. AT&T has an information site with a perky actress explaining the service.

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A femtocell offloads traffic from a carrier's constrained cellular infrastructure, avoiding use of local spectrum for handling the signal and backhaul for routing calls and data to the rest of the network. Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless have similar offerings. (T-Mobile technically uses UMA, unlicensed mobile access, which relies on Wi-Fi in a home instead of extending a cell network into the house.)

By default, calls placed via the 3G MicroCell count against your normal voice minutes, even though you're not using AT&T's cellular network for the connection. AT&T will also offer a $19.99 per month unlimited domestic calling plan for calls made or received on the 3G MicroCell; minutes aren't deducted from your voice contract. The price is the same for individual or family plans. A $100 mail-in rebate on the femtocell is available if you sign up for this plan; AT&T will kick in another $50 through a mail-in rebate to new DSL (1.5 Mbps or faster) or fiber customers, too.

For its standard cellular voice service, AT&T charges a base rate of $39.99 per month for 450 minutes for individual plans and $59.99 per month for two lines and 550 pooled minutes in a family plan (and $9.99 per month for one more line). The $19.99 add-on rate for unlimited calling would thus still be cheaper than AT&T's anytime unlimited service, which costs $69.99 for individuals and $119.99 for two lines in a family plan ($49.99 for additional lines).

However, because even AT&T's most basic voice plans include unmetered calling from 9 PM Friday to 6 AM Monday, and from 9 PM to 6 AM during weekdays, only those who use high numbers of minutes during weekdays and early evenings at home will benefit the most from the unlimited 3G MicroCell calling plan.

The 3G MicroCell handles both 3G voice and data service, and will work with up to 10 registered numbers. AT&T says that four calls can be in progress at the same time. The number registration also means you don't have to worry about neighbors hopping onto your service, even though that would directly benefit AT&T.

3G data is routed via the 3G MicroCell, too, even though AT&T offers no special deal for unlimited data carried on your own broadband network. Most sensible people would be using Wi-Fi for that purpose, although some regular phones and smartphones with 3G still lack Wi-Fi.

The 3G MicroCell, like femtocells provided by Sprint and Verizon, includes a GPS receiver and a long antenna cable. Because each carrier has exclusive licenses to specific frequency ranges dependent on geography, a clean GPS signal must be extracted to ensure use of only the right chunks of spectrum. GPS is also used to provide E911-compliant call information for emergency services. Additionally, the GPS receiver prevents you from using GPS in an area in which AT&T has no frequency licenses and outside the United States.

In cities like San Francisco and New York, where complaints about iPhone service have been particularly severe, AT&T could get a new lease on life if it can convince its customers to pony up for the 3G MicroCell.

Several analysts last year suggested that cellular carriers simply give away femtocells to customers in poor service areas as a marketing and loyalty tool that would also save on infrastructure update costs. In dense neighborhoods with lots of femtocells, congestion on existing cell sites could be significantly reduced as traffic was diverted to home broadband.

 

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Comments about AT&T 3G MicroCell Promises a Cell Tower for Your Home

Roger Moore  2010-03-25 05:38
It does seem retarded to give them $150 because their crappy network doesn't cover my house...
Michelle Steiner  2010-03-25 08:50
Although the article says that it will be available in Mid April, employees two AT&T stores in the Phoenix area who I spoke with yesterday say they have them in stock now.

I'm going to wait until the next model of the iPhone is released, though (assuming that there will be one in the next three or four months) just to see whether there will be any other carriers added to the mix.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-25 10:11
AT&T has been selling the model in a few markets, so it's possible that you could get them in Phoenix for the last several months.

Per other articles written at this site and elsewhere by yours truly, it is extremely probable there will be no Verizon nor Sprint CDMA-based iPhone (although expect an LTE one in 2012). T-Mobile is a candidate, but we haven't heard word one leaked about that.

T-Mobile's 3G network frequencies and approach vary from AT&T's, which makes the current iPhone models work only at 2G speeds on T-Mobile's network.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-25 10:52
Ironically, I just saw one of these in person at the Ithaca College Ed Tech Day trade show. I don't know that it was necessarily for sale, but the rep said she had one more training call in a few days.
Jim Kauffman  2010-03-25 20:48
The disappointing fly in the ointment is that to set the MicroCell up, it must receive accurate GPS coordinates, which means it must see the sky well. This is useless if trying to establish service where the sun don't shine, such as deep inside buildings or below grade -- which is why many need one in the first place.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-25 21:10
If it's like the other two femtocells, it will come with an extremely long GPS cable (30 feet in the case of the Verizon unit, I believe), and be very very forgiving about the data it receives.
Jim Kauffman  2010-03-25 21:37
I have a client who needs coverage 2 stories below grade in a high-rise commercial building.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-25 22:13
For them, femtocells won't be a good choice. They need UMA (T-Mobile), or VoIP, or something else that doesn't rely on cellular service.

I don't know that you need GPS to function continuously. If you used a charged, unplugged UPS, you could get the GPS signal at ground level by having the MicroCell plugged into it on battery power, then move the UPS indoors and plug it in.

My understanding is the GPS lock is at startup.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-26 07:40
The interesting comment I heard from the AT&T rep I talked with yesterday was that they didn't intend the MicroCell to be used in places that already receive 3G service (however spotty, apparently). Instead, they're supposedly planning to limit to areas where there is only EDGE and only 1 or 2 bars of service.

Needless to say, this struck me as weird, and I'm checking into it more.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-28 10:41
No, that's something he or she just made up or was misinformed about. The benefit for AT&T is enormous wherever someone can't get good coverage in a home, or makes excessive weekday calls with a family plan.

There is no planned limit in any of AT&T's leaked information or their now-public details about where you can use these in the U.S.
James Katt  2010-03-28 10:28
Can this be hooked up to internet when out of the U.S.A.? If so, this would be a fantastic way to use your cell phone overseas without incurring huge foreign country cell phone tolls.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-28 10:43
No, femtocells contain GPS receivers that must get enough of a fix to determine whether the cell can legally operator and using which licensed frequencies for that geographic area.

The way to use a "cell" phone when roaming is to get a T-Mobile dual mode UMA phone, which can make "cell" calls over Wi-Fi when you're outside of T-Mobile territory anywhere in the world, so long as you make sure and disable the cell radio. (Otherwise, it will make superexpensive GSM calls.)
Judith Sullivan  2010-03-29 18:53
You can also download a SKYPE app and make out of country calls on your iphone with skype. You can also do it with your itouch.
Karl Owen  2010-03-29 21:14
I have been using an AT&T MIcroCell with my iPhone since October. I am not very happy with it.

The first problem is that any AT&T 2G phone in range of the MicroCell takes both the 2G phone and MicroCell offline. I learned this after several weeks of calls with AT&T tech support. This is just a ridiculous restriction, as I am unlikely to ask everyone who enters my home to turn off any 2G phone.

Second, even when no 2G phones are taking the MicroCell offline I still experience dropped calls. I invested $150 so that I could forward my work phone to my iPhone and have a second line while working from home. Given the frequency of dropped calls I still ask callers if I can call them back from a landline if the call will take more than 30 seconds.

Very disappointing.
Todd V. Jonker  2010-03-29 21:22
I find this offerings to be downright offensive. Why would any customer pay an additional fee to actually get the service that was promised? I pay for the device, I pay a monthly fee, I pay for bandwidth. If the service is bad, its not the end consumer that should be paying for this. The provider should pay ME to augment their network.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-29 21:40
Yes, I don't think it's a wonderful offer if you're in a city or suburb where 3G service should work and is not; or, you have a home in a building that prevents a good signal from getting in. I wouldn't blame a carrier for either of those two problems.

But if you live in an urbanized locale and you can't get decent 3G service, why doesn't AT&T offer this to you at a nominal rate (like $10 shipping if you still have a year or more left on a contract)?

It feels quite penny wise, pound foolish.
Steven Durland  2010-03-30 07:53
Like Carl Owen, I've also had a MicroCell since October. I'm in a rural area with very week Edge signal. It solves my "inside the house" signal problems (with some frustrations), but it's not "location aware" so my location aware iPhone apps (Map, Camera, etc.) don't work right. They all think I'm located about 150 miles from where I'm standing.
Austin F  2010-05-04 14:15
I got the microcell yesterday and it works great. I own a business and need to be able to recieve calls in my house. So far it works great no missed calls or dropped calls and have full service in my basement. I think the 150 was worth it.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-05-04 15:39
I've had a MicroCell for a few weeks now too, and I'm not quite sure what to think. I don't think I've had any dropped calls since getting it, but voice quality has been dubious on a few occasions. I don't use the phone much, so I don't have a lot of experience yet, but I'm not entirely satisfied - it hasn't been a huge improvement from before. (Then again, the iPhone mostly worked OK before the MicroCell too - just with more dropped calls and some voice quality problems.)