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.


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.