The Amazing New AT&T 3G MicroCell, Part I

| In-Depth Review

mcell-1Some 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.”  

mcell-2

Credit: Femtoforum.org

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.

mcell-3 AT&T’s glamour shot

Requirements

  • 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.

mcell-4  

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

mcell-5

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

mcell-6

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.

mcell-12
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.

mcell-8 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.

mcell-9  

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.

mcell-10

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.

mcell-11

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.

Product: 3G MicroCell

Company: AT&T

List Price: US$149.99 with service and rebate options

Pros:

Deep infrastructure suport, great technical support, good looking, solid product design, great documentation, portable, sensible pricing options, easy setup, awesome product management pages. The power plug connects firmly to the unit, unlike some cheap Cable modems.

Cons:

Can be tricky to set up if behind a locked down firewall. Tech support, while excellent, is still on the learning curve for this brand new product.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Join the TMO Express Daily Newsletter to get the latest Mac headlines in your e-mail every weekday.

Comments

daemon

So what do you do if you don’t have broadband? Will AT&T give it to you for free?

John Martellaro

The device requires broadband, from any carrier. In some locations, you can buy broadband service from AT&T.

You’ll have to pay for the device, then mail in the applicable rebates.

webjprgm

What is the range for making calls (not just for 5 bars)?  When I first heard about this I thought it was a rip-off to charge you normal minutes when it’s going through your own internet connection and helps AT&T extend it’s coverage.  If the range really only helps your personal household, then I can see it as more of a convenience for you and thus their pricing scheme is justified.

Also, what is the voice quality?  Skype is pretty good but always has noticeably lower audio quality and occasional artefacts.  Does AT&T manage to get around that?

Boris Gates

So, you get to pay to get the service you already are paying for.  Sweet deal for ATT.
That monthly plan is the cash cow extra-ordinaire, for ATT.
Now I want to see a class action, to make ATT deliver the service the are selling to all customers, and not have folks pay extra where they did not bother to set up sufficient cell tower coverage.

What companies get away with…..

John Martellaro

webjprgm: The sound quality is pretty good, normal for a cell phone call. Not as good as Skype at its best, but few cell phones are. I haven’t tested how far I can walk from my house and plot bars vs. distance in feet.  Good idea for Part II.

daemon

Give me UMA any day over this…

John Martellaro

Boris:  The way I see it, it’s a solution, not a problem.  AT&T has to pay for hardware design, product packaging design, manufacture, parts, maybe some patent licenses, infrastructure, tech support, shipping to its stores, marketing, Website management, and so on. Well can all guess how much profit AT&T makes on a $150 box to pay for ALL that.

Since we’re buying supplemental hardware on that basis, and there’s no monthly fee, I really don’t understand your comment about paying again for service we’re already paying for. If you buy a second iPhone, do you “get to pay to get the service you already are paying for.” ??

ctwise

o, you get to pay to get the service you already are paying for.? Sweet deal for ATT.
That monthly plan is the cash cow extra-ordinaire, for ATT.
Now I want to see a class action, to make ATT deliver the service the are selling to all customers, and not have folks pay extra where they did not bother to set up sufficient cell tower coverage.

Every single mobile provider has these devices.  Every single one.  Mobile providers can’t cover every single location and some people are unwilling to switch providers.  That’s who these devices are for.  You want to slam AT&T for selling these devices, fine.  But add Verizon and T-Mobile to that list as well.

KitsuneStudios

If it’s less than 10% profit, I’d be very surprised. Also, there’s a big difference between “supplemental hardware” that provides an additional service (like an additional phone), and “supplemental hardware” which is required to make your service work as originally advertised (3g coverage in an area supposedly covered).

That said, there is the technical issue of structural interference. My own apartment is a giant faraday cage: i can barely get FM radio from a transmitter 2 blocks away, let along cel phone coverage. Outside is fine though, so this isn’t a problem with my provider’s service. This could be useful for that, and is about half the price of other signal booster I’ve seen. Whether it works on a Rogers edge network remains to be seen though. =/

voretaq7

Sorry John, I’m with Boris on this one: AT&T is charging full-fare (minutes) for using my infrastructure (network/bandwidth).  I’m more than willing to pay for the hardware, but I shouldn’t be charged airtime when I’m the one supplying the last mile of wireless infrastructure. The “$20 Unlimited Minutes” monthly plan is particularly offensive to me in this regard.

Also something you didn’t mention in the article: I assume any “network/data” activity like web browsing will go over my network and not AT&T’s (though it’s possible that isn’t the case it would be extraordinarily wasteful).  That’s even more load I’m taking off AT&T’s cell infrastructure…

skipaq

I picked one of these up yesterday. Was going to just check it out but decided to go ahead because of the rebate. We live in a valley with no cell phone reception. We do have a cable modem and connecting/starting this unit was a simple.

As for the 19.95 a month cost?so far this has proved to work just as advertised in and out of the house. We are looking to cancel our land line with its’ 38.95 a month bill. Net savings is 19 a month. Side benefit?iPhone now usable at home.

John Martellaro

For those who are thinking about canceling their land lines, note that if you lose household electrical power, you’ll lose your 3G Microcell and perhaps your only communications lifeline. Also, check with local government on whether they support reverse 911 on cell phones. Many do not, and it varies by region. Also, burglar alarms that don’t use a special dedicated wire will require a land line.

skipaq

My problem with telephone service in a power outage is the same either way. The power goes out and the cable modem goes out taking out the telephone unless I want to invest in a big generator. Why not go with a regular phone company? The one that services this area is in bankruptcy and their service is lousy and prices are ridiculous.

The fire department is across the street though smile

Lee Dronick

My problem with telephone service in a power outage is the same either way. The power goes out and the cable modem goes out taking out the telephone unless I want to invest in a big generator. Why not go with a regular phone company?

I have DSL from AT&T for which I need a landline. If the power goes out I can still make calls. I also have my modem and Airport on a UPS separate from the one on my iMacs so I can have some time online if the power goes out.

John Dingler, artist

Hi John,
I assume that it emits a strong RF signal, and is yet another among other weak and strong signals that dance through the human body in a home.

I wonder what are the health implications are of artificial signals modulating the body’s natural internal electrical signals over a long term basis.

We need studies.

John Martellaro

One of the things on my list to ask AT&T about is the output power - compared to, say, an AirPort base station.

skipaq

I also have my modem and Airport on a UPS separate from the one on my iMacs so I can have some time online if the power goes out.

I’ve thought about getting a UPS power backup; but don’t know how much of a value that is in a power outage.

Lee Dronick

I?ve thought about getting a UPS power backup; but don?t know how much of a value that is in a power outage.

I have them for all of our Macs. If the power goes it out gives us a few minutes to save our work and shut down the Macs “safely.” If no one is around when the blackout occurs then the Energy Saver System Preferences shuts down the Mac after a specified time, before the battery runs down.

The modem and Airport do not draw as much power as the Macs so the UPS battery supply for them should last a lot longer.

Also of importance is the power spikes and valleys in the electric lines. The UPS flattens them and delivers a more steady current. The UPS has a display showing input voltage and you can occasionally it change.

It is my understanding that a common “surge protector” will stop protecting from surges after a period of time. When it is no longer effective it simply becomes a power strip. True, on a UPS eventually the battery will need to be replaced, but I consider them a better device for protection than a surge protector.

Tim J. Buck

My customer experience at the ATT store in Somersworth, NH was not as good as John’s.

I knew I wasn’t going to order the MicroCell Unlimited service (since, as with John, I never come close to using all the minutes that I’m required to buy each each month).  I was preparing for a hard sell, but it never came.  As I was checking out, I realized why. 

Someone who appeared to be the store manager asked the young sales agent if I’d been given the $100 rebate form.  I told him I didn’t believe I was eligible for the rebate because I wouldn’t be ordering the Microcell Unlimited service.  His response was , “Oh, you don’t want that?    Ok…    I guess we’ll have to take that off”.

They were going to sign me up for a $20/month recurring charge without even asking!

The agent went onto the computer and took the recurring charge off my account. When I got home, I noticed that my receipt indicated that I had ordered the service, but assumed it was because he had printed the receipt before he took off the recurring charge.  But to be sure, I dropped into the store the next day to confirm.  The agent from the previous day wasn’t available, so I asked another agent to confirm that I hadn’t been signed up for the unlimited service.  His response was “You can’t order the MicroCell without the unlimited service”.  I assured him he was wrong, and he checked my account and confirmed that I hadn’t been charged. 

But this confirmed my suspicion that ATT policy is to charge everyone the $20 recurring charge. Agents are clearly trained to not offer the device without it, and some agents are unaware that it is even possible.

The abusive pricing plans that Apple and ATT put on the iPhone sour what ought to be a very positive user experience.  Having to pay $149 just to get it to work in my own home only adds to the abuse, but John is right - the device does work as advertised.

I’m glad that after nine months of ownership I am finally able to use my iPhone in my own home.  (Now if only I could tether my MacBook to the iPhone when I travel, so that I can actually use some of that mandatory $30/month data plan… )

Boris Gates

Since we?re buying supplemental hardware on that basis, and there?s no monthly fee, I really don?t understand your comment about paying again for service we?re already paying for. If you buy a second iPhone, do you ?get to pay to get the service you already are paying for.? ??

You are paying for cell minutes used, and for the general access/infrastructure with your subscription.  The industry has established, for the most part, that these charges are on a per phone basis.
If I pay for cell service, and I am supposed to lease a box for $20 a month to actually get service, than I am paying twice.  If I buy the microcell, I will save money in the long run, so I am still paying twice, just less.
I do not think it is unreasonable to expect decent cell service in my home (single level, flat roof) in a large city, in a ‘standard’ residential area (no multi-acre lots, almost all about 7500sqft).  It’s not like the cell phone carriers are not making money hands over fist (because consumers have been forgiving), and can’t afford to improve their infrastructure to the point that they actually deliver what they sell:  Cell phone service.
John, I think you are way too forgiving, and your defense/justification of ATT makes no sense to me.  If you bought a bag of chips and it said 16 oz, and you got home and it was 10 oz, how would you feel about that?  And it happened every time?  And the company says ‘you can’t expect us to get it right every time’? Is that legal? -NO, it is not.  So why do cell phone companies get to sell contracts that do not live up to the promise, or contract terms.  ATT has gotten a lot of press for just that, and very few penalties ...
Your review is good in that it reviews the quality of the microcell, but it is bad, because make statements that it is reasonable to buy one.  They should be part of the infrastructure you already pay for!

Boris Gates

Sorry John, I?m with Boris on this one: AT&T is charging full-fare (minutes) for using my infrastructure (network/bandwidth).? I?m more than willing to pay for the hardware, but I shouldn?t be charged airtime when I?m the one supplying the last mile of wireless infrastructure. The ?$20 Unlimited Minutes? monthly plan is particularly offensive to me in this regard.

Exactly, insult to injury, you also pay for the broadband…

Mikuro

Since iPhones already have Wi-fi access built in, why can’t they route calls through the Internet without this extra piece of hardware?

Zarko

I have to agree that charging you minutes to use a routing device that you have to buy upfront and also have to supply the bandwidth for is dubious.  Other Voip services offer this capability for less money, and one device (Ooma) will even let you get land-line like service for no monthly fee.

Grab a Google Voice account (also free) and you’ll get all your calls, even when your iPhone lacks service.

I don’t think I would ever want or need this device from At&T

John Martellaro

Mikuro:  You can.  It’s called Skype for iPhone combined with Skype Credits.

skipaq

As has been pointed out, you don’t have to sign up for the unlimited service with its’ monthly charge. There is no contract if you do take the service. Some have bought the device and turned the unlimited service off after getting the rebate. You can also turn it back on whenever you need it.

The device will route your calls using your cell service minutes if that is the way you want it. But if you need those minutes for away from home, then paying 19.95 a month for unlimited calling from home is not outrageous.

And yes, Skype is the way to go for Wi-Fi calls.

Voice

@Boris:
The $20/month plan a)is optional, and b)gives you *unlimited* minutes when using the microcell.  I’m pretty sure you’re not already paying for unlimited minutes, but if you are, just don’t sign up for the *optional* $20/month plan when you buy it.

pputnam

What if you take the microcell to an area that gets a signal from an AT+T partner? Will it activate and work?

Scott Barclay

So what do you do if you don?t have broadband? Will AT&T give it to you for free?

In that case, you get out your ink bottle and quill pen, write a note on parchment, and drop the message in the Pony Express rider’s mail pouch next time he gallops by.

Log-in to comment