Networking

AT&T's 3G MicroCell: The answer for no bars

AT&T is going to make a lot of wireless customers happy. They are releasing a product mid-April that will improve in-home cell coverage.

Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) and Femtocells are divergent technologies developed specifically to provide wireless telco service in areas of less than adequate coverage. When I wrote those articles, I believed Femtocell would be the surviving technology. I may have guessed right.

AT&T is marketing the 3G MicroCell, a new product based on Femtocell technology. I have several clients and friends that are going to benefit from this device. That's because reception from wireless telecom providers is spotty at best in and around their homes and businesses.

It might help if I explain. I live near the suburb/rural intersection. If you go a few miles further from that demarcation point, the infamous wireless dead zone starts. It is easy to tell when you're there. Just look for a preponderance of satellite dishes. At least, you always know which way south is.

What is a 3G MicroCell?

The 3G MicroCell is a miniature AT&T cell tower. The only technical difference is instead of using a cell tower's back haul to reach the AT&T network, the 3G MicroCell relies on the owner's broadband access to connect to AT&T's network. Here is AT&T's explanation:

"The 3G MicroCell provides voice and data service to AT&T 3G wireless phones and devices within a home or small business environment. The 3G MicroCell is secure and can deliver maximum cellular signal strength within its coverage area. It's like having your own mini cell tower in your home or office."

The Web site mentions that the coverage area is 5000 square feet, but depends on building materials.

Performance highlights

Femtocell devices are wireless-provider specific. In this case, the 3G MicroCell only works with AT&T 3G devices such as cell phones and data cards. Some features of the 3G MicroCell are:

  • Handles up to four simultaneous calls
  • Allows call transfer to the cellular network
  • Works on UMTS bands (1900 MHz and 850 MHz)
  • Supports E911 Service

Another interesting feature is the portability of the 3G MicroCell. It can be moved to anywhere AT&T provides service as long as it's registered online.

No extra fees

I immediately started looking for extra charges, but AT&T specifically states:

"Minutes used through the 3G MicroCell affect only the account of the phone making the call. There is no requirement to purchase separate service for the 3G MicroCell."

AT&T does offer an optional plan that supplements existing cell plans:

"AT&T will offer a companion rate plan option for 3G MicroCell customers-especially customers on Family Talk plans--who want to supplement their existing voice plans. For $19.99 a month, individual or Family Talk customers can make unlimited calls through a 3G MicroCell, without using minutes in their monthly wireless voice plan."

Several clients will like the companion plan. They are small businesses and this will allow them to eliminate the existing land line. I'm actually considering buying a 3G MicroCell myself, even though I have good coverage at home.

Living in Minnesota means power outages and that typically includes the nearby cell tower. The MicroCell on battery backup would allow phone service to continue during an outage if the CO was still up.

Security

The 3G MicroCell reminds me of a Wi-Fi access point. As a security nut; I was worried about someone walking by, connecting to the device, and using my broadband connection. That's not possible. Only phone numbers chosen by the device's owner are allowed to connect. Up to 10 AT&T phone numbers can be entered on the 3G MicroCell's management Web-page.

Final thoughts

For a one-time charge of $150 US, the 3G MicroCell has a lot to offer. My friends got excited as soon as I told them about it. Their only disappointment is that it's not available yet. It will be mid-April in certain markets, taking several months to activate the device across the entire country.

About

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

56 comments
jruesch
jruesch

This just seems like a way for AT&T to put the cost of having better coverage on the backs of us users. They should be putting up more cell towers so the coverage is better for all. Instead, they make us pay $150 so the wireless/mobile phones work in our house? This is lame...

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Apple users are used to this kind of wallet rape, but the average consumer would be besides themselves.

anealysr
anealysr

AT&T has no respect for their customers, I know as I am one and will switch as soon as this contract is over. No signal at all In the 2 places I spend most of my time. I do mean NO signal not no 3G, that is a joke to think you will get 3G anywhere unless you are in a major city. What AT&T does not consider that lots of business is conducted outside of major cities. I now have to have two phones to stay connected. I got Verizon and it works everywhere. Damn shame I can't get rid of AT&Trash now. I have been with Cingular/AT&T for 6 years and they have never reported a good credit standing and never refunded my 2 different deposits. Some may ask why 2 services, I got conned by AT&T about 1.5 years ago into extending the contract. NEVER AGAIN I"m finished with AT&T

BioTek
BioTek

Could I just bring this device with me to another country and make phone calls from my cellphone and not have to pay international roaming fees? Or does this appliance report to AT&T where I am in the world based on the internet connection and charge me as such?

Heimdall222
Heimdall222

Per AT&T Customer Service (1-800-331-0500, Freddie Davis), the MicroCell is essentially only a cell signal *booster*, not a signal *provider*. So, even if you have DSL or cable Internet service, to use the MicroCell you must also have a cell signal. Maybe only very weak signal, but still a signal.

fiosdave
fiosdave

For a lot less than $150, you can install a "flagpole" with a hi-gain antenna, aimed at a cell tower, and connected to a small "whip" antenna at the base. The cost for two antenna, 30-40' of coax, connectors, etc. should be less than $150, with the added advantage of it probably working with ALL major carriers in your area! Of course, you must be within range, even using a hi-gain antenna, and you may not be able to erect a "flagpole" in your area, but it may be worth considering... Dave

Sleevee
Sleevee

Hmm?A $150 for us to fix their crappy coverage at home. Nice! It should be free to existing customers that have been dealing with that issue of spotty home coverage, only to be told "there is nothing we can do about that; we don't guarantee coverage inside your home". Oh wait, we figured out how we can but, its going to cost you even more!

Daniel Breslauer
Daniel Breslauer

If you already have WiFi. Any decent 3G phone has WiFi. Besides, why would you use your cellphone for anything other than calls (which work on older networks as well) at home? I don't touch my cellphone at home, except when someone calls me or I'm installing or updating applications on it. Why would I listen to music, watch movies, read email, use IM on it, if I have 4 laptops in the same house?!

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

If this works the way that it was described to me by someone else, this is a good way to extend the reach of an existing 3G service, but will do nothing for those still suffering on AT&T's EDGE network... can't extend that yet. Is this the case?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Hey, guys, let's sell this device to people who complain about signal strength. If it works, we can start cutting our tower signals and sell more of them!"

BlueEagle79
BlueEagle79

I live in the sticks, and have VERY poor cell service with AT&T. Unfortunately, I live SO far out in the sticks, that the only internet access I have is satellite. Hello latency, bandwidth limits, and usage caps. Anybody know if this product is, (for me,) even worth the price of the box it comes in?

Richard.Mlodoch
Richard.Mlodoch

So what - my Blackberry does this already by going through my wireless router. Instead of building it into their phones they sell you a box for $150. Is their no end to paying for AT&T customers. Instead of building up their own network, you pay them to do it for them. I wonder if they will put you on their 3G map?

tsears
tsears

Sprint has had this available for some time as their AirRave setup.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Check out AT&T's new product. This will help indoor areas that have poor cell coverage.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

That is is OK for Verizon and Sprint to use this technology, but not AT&T?

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Is that AT&T must approve where you are using it. First, you have to give them the MicroCell's serial number, so if AT&T has an issue, they will just disallow any traffic from that particular device.

monster_cookie2148
monster_cookie2148

Whom ever you talked to didn't know their head from their you know what. Somebody needs to go back to the training classes.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

The only requirement is that what ever device you are using is approved for that area. I suspect that is what is confusing you.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I will be glad to dispute what you say. The gain from a high-gain directional antenna will never over come the loss from the coaxial cable. I have tried this and trust me it does not work.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I am curious to learn if you expect a wireless technology to completely infiltrate all buildings? I also wonder why you are singling AT&T out, the other wireless telcos have similar devices.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

In many instances, using Wi-Fi to make calls requires additional configuration and in some cases expenses. Being able to just plug something in and use a cell phone in a normal manner means a lot to many people.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Is that the MicroCell is a 3G cell tower. So that means data as well. It is immaterial what the AT&T cell towers are running in your area.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

This is the bandwidth requirements from AT&T: "Downstream speeds of 1.5 Mbps and upstream speeds of 256 Kbps are recommended for best performance (satellite broadband is not compatible)."

tthompson
tthompson

If Vonage, Skype, SipPhone, or Google Voice work well for you, then this should. If the latency (lag) of your connection doesn't permit other VoIP services to work well, this isn't going to be happy. So far as I understand it, this is a 3G bridge to IP, so the performance is very tied to your IP connection lag.

gladone
gladone

Why doesn't AT&T just improve their network. Sounds like a way to milk more from their customers.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I hope that wasn't because of me. Any phone with Wi-Fi can do that. That is a variation of the FMC technology. It requires additional setup and sometimes charges. Femtocell technology does not require any of that and there is only a one-time charge for the device.

Kuppyus
Kuppyus

Yes, it may give you results that you expected to receive as part of using your cell phone, but now they want more money just to allow you to get a signal. What a dumb marketing move to charge for something that only illustrates to poor service they deliver. You would think the idea would be used as a marketing tool to improve their reputation, not make they only more greedy to their own system inadequacy. They are the pits.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

"Bubbubub we have faster 3G..." So what, that's like Mickey D's advertising Big Macs in Somalia. Why advertise something that people can't have. With AT&T, 3G coverage is only fast WHEN you can get it.

gladone
gladone

No. It's not OK for any of them to do it. They should either fix their coverage or make these devices available at a very reasonable price or lower their monthly rate.

rmerchberger
rmerchberger

One, if it just plain didn't work, manufacturers wouldn't put external ports on their phones to hook up external antennae to them -- an 18dB yagi could easily overcome 5dB signal loss from the cable... and Two, did you try using LMR-1700 with the antenna? That would be very low loss, but I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader on how to interface that cable with the cell phone port... ;-) Seriously, there are some options that do work for signal gain (most of those are rather expensive), there are a whole lot more that just plain don't work, and without a well tuned solution I'll agree that many people probably won't see a net gain in signal strength... but I wouldn't discount it outright. I wish I had the tools & knowledge to build a functional J-pole for my cellphone, just for the geek factor alone. Laterz, AB8KK

fiosdave
fiosdave

Depends upon your coax. I would mention nitrogen filled hardline, but that would be a bit costly! There are 20dB gain antennas available, and the loss using good coax is far less than that. There are also other devices available that can be used to boost the signal, when put in the path between the two antennas. Even if the cost slightly exceeds the original plan, you will still have the advantage of (probably) using several cell sites.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I do not believe you can say that AT&T is the only provider that has poor coverage in some buildings. That is why all wireless telcos are offering similar devices.

Roger_Harmon
Roger_Harmon

I have had a Microcell since March 23rd. They rolled them out in the SW US region. For set up it has to have a view of the GPS satellites. I had to call tech support once it synced and I moved it from my back yard into my metal roofed house. They configured it so it wouldn't need to continue to receive a GPS signal. I am getting 5 bars of signal where I used to get none. Of course my Sprint and Alltel phones always worked in this house, but not AT&T, till now. Haven't had any issues, it just works. If you choose the $20/month for unlimited calls, there is a $100 rebate for the Microcell. Also, if you originate a call on the Microcell and then leave the house, the call is billed under the unlimited $20/mo. plan and not your regular cell minutes. I don't think I should pay for it, however the reduction in stress for my wife is worth every penny. Now here iPhone just works.

DanKearney
DanKearney

I've had the AirRave for a little over a year. In my case, its signal pretty much covers my entire 1/2 acre property, but can get a little spotty at the boundary. Usually, the call quality is good, but there is a substantial amount of cutting in-and-out if I happen to be downloading something via bittorrent at the same time. I usually pause my computer's network traffic when I receive or make a cell call on it. I should be clear that this is not necessarily the AirRave's issue, it could be my Qwest DSL connection causing the intermittent problem. My Qwest connection is 1.5Mbps down and ~640Kbps up. Dan K.

Regulator1956
Regulator1956

The AiRave works great, though the distance is about 2 walls or 50 feet. Cell only, no data. If you're speaking via the AiRave (you hear a tone at first) you can leave the coverage and still keep the call if you still have a regular Sprint signal. Same thing walking towards the AiRave. When you get close to it, you hear a tone and then you're on the AiRave. The call doesn't drop. The sound quality is as good as any VoIP call. I have an excellent Verizon Fios connection. Your mileage may vary. Cost was $99 for the Sprint Femtocell, plus $5 per month. Sounds like AT&T's is a better deal at $150 with no monthly and it includes data.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Every major wireless telco has a device like the MicroCell. I also suspect that there are areas where every major wireless telco has less than adequate coverage, especially inside buildings. These types of devices will help.

Roger_Harmon
Roger_Harmon

I totally agree that I should not have had to buy the MicroCell. However, one business call that I received because of the Microcell could more then pay for it. It gives me more freedom to work from home and still be connected to my clients. \Roger\

rmerchberger
rmerchberger

You are correct, however, if you consider my wisecrack about LMR-1700, I think what the OP proposed could be *technically* feasible. Granted, at more than a few dollars per foot, I'm quite sure that this would no longer be a "cheaper" solution, to say the least. ;-) I stand firmly behind my J-pole comment, though! 73, AB8KK

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

The first comment was about a passive repeater. Hooking one antenna to another with a length of coax, without any intermediary conditioning. That does not appear to be what you are referring to.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Also, I agree you could buy a Wi-Fi enabled phone for less. But what about others in the same facility. What about guests? Why not have options rather than say there is only one way to deal with a low signal strength situation.

monster_cookie2148
monster_cookie2148

All the cell phone companies should discount the rate per call or our monthly contract for each minute we use a device like this. After all, you will be using this device on your own home DSL/Cable network which means major offloading of cell usage on the cell networks, money the cell companies will be saving. These devices, I might add, are not new to the market, AT&T and some others are just slow to make them available. Femtocells have been available for several months, in fact, one provider of femtocell has been offering them on the web for several months, for less money and they will work with AT&T phones, and I might add, are legal to use. I don't know why one would want to purchase one of these things anyway. I can buy a portable VoIP (Sip) phone for less, that is usable on my Home & Office PBX system. In addition, I can take my VoIP portable with me just about anywhere I go and use it for a lot less money than my AT&T phone. I have had more success in a lot of cases using my VoIP portable than my AT&T cellular phone. Since obtaining the PBX Software for free, having as many numbers as I wish available from VoIP Trunk providers I have cut my actual phone cost to almost nothing. The future of Wi-Fi, Wi-Max and VoIP is where the technology is headed, not cellular. Fact is that 3G & 4G networks use Sip Technologies anyways.

FiOS-Dave
FiOS-Dave

Hi Michael, Many years ago, when I was experimenting with X-band, I tried something similar and it worked. Of course, I was using waveguide back then! Theoretically, if the gain of both antennas is greater than the feedline loss, your net gain should improve your reception. You could also try a translator or repeater setup, as well, but that would be quite a bit more expensive! --73-- Dave

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I have tried several devices that condition signals. That was even with a high-gain antenna on the roof. They did not improve the signal, it kept it at the same level as the received signal. I would love it to work, as I have non-powered areas where I would like to use two microwave antennas to go around corners. I do know these types of devices are nice. You pretty much have your own cell tower and if located correctly can cover a large area. 73's K0PBX

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I will pass that information along. Thanks for responding.

Roger_Harmon
Roger_Harmon

In most of my house, I had no bars. After installing the MicroCell I have 5 bars everywhere with 3G. Even outside the house the MicroCell is providing a better signal then the AT&T cell tower(s). I did have an issue: The GPS and 3G lights were flashing Friday morning. I called AT&T and the tier one support people didn't seem to be able to fix it. They said it would be fixed by today. When I checked at 0139MST this morning, it was working. My theory: the engineers that know what to do had the weekend off.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I have a question. A member asked if his area only had Edge, would the MicroCell still run 3G phone and data? I mentioned the AT&T Web site said it was independent of the normal cell towers. But, I wonder if you know for sure how that part works.

brian
brian

Especially on DSL your torrents will saturate your connection very easily. The nature of Torrents is very abusive to any other traffic trying to get through. I used to administer large networks with big 45-megabit DS3 uplinks. On a network with 1,500 users, 10 people running torrents could leave no pipe left for the remaining 1,490 people. You could employ a higher-end router that can prioritize the AirRave traffic. I think there are devices like that at "home user" prices. Alternatively, for free, you could go in your Torrent software and choke down on the upload capacity. (I find a saturated upstream line will prevent downstream data as well.) The software is probably in bytes per second while your connection spec is in bits, so divide by 8 (80KBytes/sec theoretical max throughput) and leave room for overhead and error and congestion, and set your torrent soft to limit to 40KB/sec or so. Same method for downloads if that doesn't solve it. I have mine set to 20 and I'm on cable with about double your upstream capacity. (Can handle 80.) Some ISPs will notice individual users who saturate their lines 24/7 and choke down on their bandwidth. I suspect that happened to me a few times, but hasn't since I set the number lower. (The internet is designed to handle bursts of high-speed traffic followed by idle pauses, into which your neighbors' bursts can fall. Torrents throw a monkey wrench in that so ISPs answer by limiting to a socially-acceptable average when someone tries to eat the whole cake.)

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

About the coverage. What you are getting is pretty good. How high off the ground is the device?

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

That is good to know. I have dealt with the metal studs, so I suspect the mesh is quite similar. Is there a monthly charge on those units? Another member mentioned that Sprint was doing so.

Too-Tired Techie
Too-Tired Techie

We have 2 employees with no Sprint reception at home. We installed the AiRave and calls go through beautifully, and the phones (Treo 755p) sync email/calender stuff nicely to OWA through the unit as well. The range is as advertised and it can be configured so only specific numbers can make/receive calls. Has a GPS antenna for 911 call location data. Only noticeable issue was in a large stucco/stone house the GPS antenna needed to be placed at a window because of the metal wire mesh used in the stucco walls.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Appreciate that. The MicroCell will also transfer calls to a cell tower and accept them as well. I thought I remember a monthly charge, thanks for confirming that.

gypkap
gypkap

I live in Albuquerque right now, but I had issues with AT&T coverage when I was living in St Louis Park MN. Eventually I switched to Verizon, simply because they had better coverage there, and they cost less than AT&T. I'm now with Cricket in Albuquerque because the monthly rate is even lower than Verizon, and I rarely need cell phone coverage outside of town. If I need better coverage in the future, I'll probably go back to Verizon.