Some AT&T customers have the misfortune of living or working in an area where the 3G wireless signal is weak, and it’s difficult or impossible to make a mobile call. To solve that problem, AT&T has introduced the 3G MicroCell, a device that plugs into a broadband connection, connects on the Internet via VOIP and radiates a local 3G footprint. Think of it as a cell tower in your home or business that provides a strong signal, up to five bars.
Like many people, I live in a rural area. Worse, our house is in a slight topographic depression. As a result, while I see the AT&T signal, I’ve never been able to make a reliable mobile call on my iPhones, 2G (EDGE), 3G or 3GS. However, as soon as I leave the house and drive up the hill, I get a usable AT&T 3G signal. It’s been a frustrating three years. Because T-Mobile’s signal is so much better out here, I’ve had to turn to T-Mobile and a Cell Ranger for all this time. I am the perfect candidate for AT&T’s new 3G MicroCell*.
Historically, a small device like this in the home or small business has been referred to as a “Femtocell.” So why did AT&T name it a MicroCell? AT&T explained: “The full product name is AT&T 3G MicroCell. In primary customer research, we found that the former technical name (Femtocell) didn’t resonate well with the typical consumer and didn’t truly reflect the product attributes. Consumers seemed to better understand what the product was — a small, but powerful cell tower — when we used the more literal description.”
The AT&T 3G MicroCell is a device about the size of a large cable modem. With a few exceptions, noted later, it plugs into your home router, and then creates a 5,000 sq ft (465 m2) region of 3G cell coverage. (It does not work with EDGE only phones.) Your AT&T phone, so long as it’s a 3G handset, will then be able to make a normal phone call. Minutes are charged to your regular plan as if you were using the phone directly via a cell tower.
AT&T’s glamour shot
- Any AT&T 3G mobile handset
- A broadband Internet connection (1.5 Mbps or better) and computer with a browser
- Access to the sky for GPS location
- An AT&T online account for account management
Even though the product comes with a 12 ft Ethernet patch cable, you may wish to have some extra 3 or 4 ft cables handy because you may need to do some minor rewiring of your home network.
My Buying Experience
The 3G MicroCell was released for sale in Colorado on May 3, 2010,** and I eagerly went to the AT&T store in Lone Tree, Colorado on May 4 to pick one up, reserved the day before. One of the sales agents had actually put my name on a box to save it for me. No advance charge was required for that courtesy. That was the beginning of an extraordinary and positive buying experience.
When my sales agent realized what product I wanted, she brought the store manager, Erika, out to introduce me to the product. Erika had obviously been well trained. She presented me with product sales options, opened the box, walked me through the contents and initiated part of the activation process on AT&T’s end. I was advised that I may have to reboot my iPhone once the 3G MicroCell starts to radiate, but it wasn’t, in fact, necessary.
With that behind us, she thumbed through the manual with me and showed me various network configurations, the phone number for tech support — even wrote it on a yellow sticky — and reminded me that if, for some reason, the device wouldn’t work, I’d have 30 days to return the product for a full refund — with no restocking fee. In my mind, that demonstrated AT&T’s confidence in the product.
There are two purchase modes. You can buy just the 3G MicroCell for $149.99, or you can also buy a US$20/month plan that allows unlimited minutes for a family, independent of the regular mobile phone plan minutes. If you do that, you get a US$100.00 rebate, making your hardware cost just under $50. If you also initiate a new line of broadband service with AT&T, say DSL or U-verse, there’s also a $50 rebate. The rebates can combined, so your cost for the MicroCell would be effectively zero.
One of the things the community was worried about, when we first heard of this product, was that AT&T would charge not only for the hardware but also a monthly fee just to use it. Thankfully, AT&T thought this out and provides an option to use the device in its basic mode without a monthly plan. The optional $20 unlimited plan, then, provides real value. AT&T should be commended for this sensible, customer friendly approach.
I asked AT&T about small business use, and was told: “There is no restriction for small business customers. All the terms and conditions and set up are the same.”
I chose to just buy just the 3G MicroCell because I have accumulated 4,500 rollover minutes and because I didn’t want to incur a continuing monthly fee. I walked out of the AT&T store very confident and felt that I’d had been very well taken care of as a customer. I’ll be sending a note raving about Erika to her manager.
The Product Box
My Out of the Box Experience
The box contains the following items:
- The AT&T 3G MicroCell
- A power adapter
- A 12 ft Ethernet patch cable
- The AT&T 3G MicroCell Getting Started Guide
- The AT&T 3G MicroCell User Manual
The first thing you do is launch the user’s side of the activation process at att.com/3GMicroCell. On a series of very beautifully laid out and thought out pages, you will:
- Name your 3G MicroCell
- Specify the physical location, that is, street address
- Enter the product’s serial number
- Enter a contact e-mail address — necessary
- Enter your home phone number — if desired
- Specify a list of AT&T handset numbers that are authorized, up to 10 numbers
Account Setup Review
… and then verify the information. After everything is entered and checked on the management page, you’re directed to page two of the Getting Started Guide to follow the network diagrams and select the configuration right for you. I ended up using Option C for technical reasons, but then I have a more complex network than most residential customers.
Option C (direct connect to cable/DSL modem, using the pass through port to a router)
Most users with consumer grade routers will be able to plug the 3G MicroCell into a port on the router or a downstream hub or switch, shown in Option A below. More on this in a bit. A nice touch that I noticed is that the supplied Ethernet cable is yellow, and there’s a yellow border around the Ethernet port where it should go. Little touches like that are impressive.
Option A (direct connect to home router/switch)
Note that, unlike most consumer routers, there is no direct web browser interface to the MicroCell. For example, I manage my SonicWall router with Firefox at address: http://192.168.1.1. (Safari doesn’t work.) All management of the MicroCell is done via att.com/3GMicroCell, and once everything is running, you can come back to that page to see the device status, change the nickname, location, etc.
Cleverly, AT&T places a sticker that’s easy to remove over the access ports with a reminder of of the URL for device activation and management plus which manual to refer to. A lot of thought went into the product design here, and the user experience seems to be as foolproof as humanly possible.
Alert sticker placed over ports
It is recommended that you power down your cable modem, router, and the MicroCell and retsart in that order. The MicroCell will ask for a DHCP address/lease when it boots. Once you have 1) a green power light, 2) a solid green Ethernet light, 3) a solid green GPS light, and optionally 4) a solid green computer (or router) light, your part is done. You can then sit back and wait for the device to become fully activated by AT&T. Note: You’ll need to put the MicroCell on a window sill with good sky access during this period. The GPS system verifies the street address you claimed for the location of the device. If you just cannot get a GPS fix, call AT&T tech support (800-331-0500, options 0 then 3). They might waive this restriction if you just cannot get a GPS lock right away. They did for me. (I eventually got the GPS lock.)
If you ever move, you must go into the management system and change the physical address of the device. There’s no limit on how many times you can change location, and you could even think about taking the MicroCell on vacation, say to a condo, that has a DSL or Cable modem. Dialing Emergency 911 will direct assistance to the address you specify here.
Deployed and operating!
The final activation can take as long as 90 minutes. In my case, the first activation failed because I didn’t have a good GPS lock. I worked with AT&T technical support on the phone, and we got the MicroCell activated the second time around. However, just because the device is activated, doesn’t mean it’s fully functional. That doesn’t happen until there’s a solid green “3G” light on the unit, and that can depend on minor issues if the device is plugged directly into a router. See below. When the unit is activated, you’ll get an e-mail at your contact address and even a text message on your mobile phone congratulating you.
How do you know when you’re finally ready to make calls? First, that green 3G light must be glowing steadily. Second, the wireless indicator on your phone should say, “AT&T M-Cell,” shown below. In principle, you should be able to hand off a call as you leave the range of the 3G MicroCell, but this wasn’t tested.
The M-Cell indicator is proof, you’re good to go
Despite the terrific buying experience and the reasonably easy setup and connections, I finished the day on May 5 with no solid green “3G” light. I’ll explain what the source of the problem was and how I fixed it in Part II.
Day One Summary
I was incredibly pleased with how AT&T treated me. The Lone Tree store manager didn’t know who I work for or that I would be writing a review until just before I left the store, so I surmise that any customer would be as well treated. The product is beautifully packaged, well thought out and nicely documented. The AT&T management pages are awesomely coherent, beautiful, and easy to navigate.
Early personal testing has shown that I can go to the farthest reaches of my home and even go outdoors, wandering 60 to 80 feet (18 to 24 meters) from the MicroCell and maintain five bars. Compared to what I have been paying T-Mobile for all our family cell phones each month, a one time charge of $149.99 is going to save us a lot of money. And I’ll actually be able to use those 4,500 AT&T rollover minutes and enjoy the features of my iPhone 3GS to the fullest now.
In Part II of this review, I’ll delve into the networking nuances of this device. For now, be aware that if you plug this device directly into a consumer grade router (or its downstream switch), the router must have certain Ethernet ports open. They usually do by default, but if you’ve locked it down, be aware of the open ports required. Those are explained at the bottom of page 5 of the User Manual.***
This is a great product that I’m very excited about. It’s going to help a lot of AT&T customers get the most out of their 3G mobile phones. However, because it’s a complicated product with attendant new product growing pains, don’t get frustrated if you encounter setbacks during the setup like I did. AT&T technicians are well trained to get you through the process. That $150 buys you an incredible amount of support, so take advantage of that.
* As we know, the bars we see on a cell phone display are not a true signal strength meter. My iPhone 3GS typically shows two or three bars while sitting in its cradle at home, but as soon as I dial a number, the bars magically go away, and the call fails. (Yes, I have used AT&T’s “Mark the Spot” app — which you should use too if you have poor reception.) It’s been frustrating seeing those bars, but not being able to make a call. But I understand why.
** The U.S. rollout started in April, 2010, but the AT&T 3G MicroCell may not yet be available in all areas that AT&T services. It’s only available in AT&T retail stores.
*** Highly technical customers who want to delve into great detail will find this very geeky review at AnandTech to be terrific.