AT&T MicroCell: A brief review.

I like to refer to the large granite faced hill behind my house as "The Mountain", and take great pride in it's authentic New Hampshire beauty. Unfortunately, this thing is directly in the way of the closest AT&T tower. That said, I take significantly less pride in the 0-1 bars of service, usually Edge, that my iPhone 3GS can scrounge up around the house. Until just a few weeks ago, my solution to this problem was to place calls from Cellphone Rock, Cellphone Window Frame, Cellphone Desk; all aptly named specific locations where a correctly oriented GSM device could get enough service to maintain a call.  This all changed when AT&T finally got around to releasing their femptocell, for whatever reason they have named MicroCell, in the Granite State. 

The concept of a femtocell is simple: It's a mini cell tower for your house, much like a wireless router, that your phone can connect to to place calls and send/receive messages. The device uses your internet connection as the pipe back to your wireless provider, and viola, you've got service where you had none before. Other carriers like Verizon have had femptocells available to their customers for a while now; AT&T is just a little on the slow side.

I picked one up as soon as they became available in my area and was able to place calls with it in just a few hours. The setup is really simple: Register it with AT&T on their website, plug it in to your network, and wait. It needs to be placed near a window, as the device won't work unless the on-board GPS decides you are in the area you said you were in (think E911!). If you can't get a great GPS signal where you want to place it, say in the middle of a building, there is an input for a GPS antenna on the back. Sounds like a hassle if you're stuck with this option. This is what the 8.5" beauty looks like:

AT&T 3G MicroCell (click to enlarge)

The initial setup time can take a few hours. It took somewhere from 1-2 hours to hook up with AT&T after configuration to be ready to place calls. Once it has a solid internet connection and a GPS lock, it blinks the 3G service light in anxious anticipation of AT&T's approval, until finally staying lit. You're even greeted with a text message from AT&T declaring that your MicroCell is good to go. Once it's set up, it comes up after a power cycle in less than 10 minutes. I located mine by a window, so the GPS lock takes only a few minutes, the bulk of the time is spent waiting for it to decide to say 3G service is ready. 

You'd think it would be party time when AT&T toting friends arrive, but alas the MicroCell will only whisper sweet 3G nothings into the ears of phones you have approved via their website. You can register at most 10 numbers with AT&T for your device, and in my experience it can take up to a half hour for the newly added phone to be ready to place calls. It's a pain. There's an article floating around that mentions an unmanaged mode, where any AT&T device can connect, but there is no mention of this anywhere in the manual or on the rest of the internets. At most, 4 devices can be using it simultaneously, and it's for 3G devices only. There are no GSM (EDGE) radios in it, so first generation iPhone owners and the like are out of luck.

When you've connected to it, it lets you know that you're on it with "AT&T M-CELL 3G" listed in the carrier section (WiFi is off in the picture below):

iPhone 3GS on MicroCell

I did some extremely scientific and thorough testing to see how robust the connection was with the MicroCell, placed in the front of my house at the corner of two exterior walls with no line-of-sight to a window. While blaring Pandora on nothing other than 'Miley Cyrus Radio,' I wandered around my neighborhood to see how far the connection could go without dropping. WiFi was disabled for the test and the iPhone 3GS I was using always displayed that it was connected to the MicroCell. 

The results were a little surprising. I made it down the street nearly 400ft before the connection dropped; careful to stop frequently and make sure that the connection hadn't already dropped (Pandora does buffer, you know). Starting back at the house, but going the opposite way of the first path, I was only able to go 100ft or so. This other path put an additional exterior wall in between the phone and the MicroCell, which explains part of the reduction in range. I was able to repeat the 400ft path starting from the house and taking a perpendicular path to the first one. Wandering around the yard I have great service, usually 5 bars, and in all the rooms of the house. 

There have been several times that my connection has flaked out, though. Unfortunately it is difficult to figure out if the issue is from the iPhone 3GS, not particularly well known for hanging on to its connection, or if it was the MicroCell. Just before doing this testing, I was receiving 5 bars of signal strength but had no real data connection. A power cycle of the MicroCell didn't work, but power cycling the iPhone's radios by switching in and out of airplane mode did the trick. This sounds like a fairly obvious case of iPhone sickness, but I had been running Pandora off of a 'real' 3G connection not 2 hours before. I have also had calls break up and drop while sitting still in a 5-bar area, a problem that I have not had happen on 'real' 3G networks. Any conclusions I make from this would be suspect, so let's give this thing the benefit of the doubt and blame it on Apple for now.

So, how much does it cost to be able to rock out to Pandora in your 3G coverage-less neighborhood? $150 if you decline to add any additional service to your plan, like unlimited minutes while on the MicroCell. It is most definitely worth the expense if you are stuck on AT&T and have poor coverage at home. Isn't it fun to pay for coverage you already pay $80+ per month for? No, no it's not, but at least if I break a hip I'll be able to place a 911 call from home.