As reported here and here AT&T released their new 3G MicroCell yesterday in the Charlotte test market. Hey! That’s where I live! I’ve been waiting on this device for a while. Ask anyone I work with how my cell coverage is at home and you’ll find out it’s abysmal. Calls are short, frustrating, and futile. For once I won’t blame AT&T for this. I live in a low area in my neighborhood and both GSM and CDMA coverage is very bad. I tried a repeater when the iPhone first shipped with very limited success. The 3GS iPhone appears better but many times I’ll get a “You have a new voicemail!” notice when my phone never rang. Frustrating.
Enter the new MicroCell from AT&T. This is not a repeater, it’s more like a Cell-to-VoIP seamless gateway. You plug it in to your broadband connection and it acts as a small cell tower in your house. Your 3G AT&T devices connect to that box directly and all calls and are routed out over your Internet connection. So even if you have zero coverage you can use this box, unlike a repeater that needs a signal to amplify. If you originate a call on the MicroCell it will also be handed off to a normal AT&T tower if you leave your house.
Again, I bought this on the day of release in a test market. When I bought it there was extra paperwork to fill out. I gave them my contact information so an AT&T rep could call me in a few days to get my purchase, install, and usage experience opinion. They made sure I lived in the supported area which included Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) as well as a few surrounding counties. I actually bought my unit from the AT&T store in Salisbury on the way back from a customer. My sales rep, Nathan, was very helpful and mentioned they had sold 5 or so already that day. Salisbury isn’t a big town so it shows the anticipation for the device.
Information on the AT&T site for the device is here. Excuse the fact they have audio with no warning. Bad AT&T! Bad!
There has been some discrepancy on the cost of the device and how it works. The unit itself is $149. If you just want to use your cell plan minutes there is no additional monthly fee. You buy the box and you’re good to go. That’s what I did. If you don’t want to use your plan minutes you can get an unlimited plan. This is useful for people who want to go cell only and I might make that move again now that our iPhones work in the house. If you don’t have any other AT&T services the unlimited plan is $20/month and you get a $100 mail-in rebate on the device taking it down to $49. If you have your Internet or voice through AT&T the price goes down to $10/month. If you have both Internet and voice through AT&T the plan is free. I need to see if they require VoIP with U-Verse for that plan or a plain AT&T POTS line meets the requirements. We use U-Verse for Internet and an AT&T POTS for voice so I may get the plan for free anyway. Do the math for your minute usage and see what works for you.
What You Get for $150
The picture below shows you everything you get when you buy the device.
- The 3G MicroCell Unit
- Yellow Ethernet Cable
- A/C Power Supply
- Quickstart Guide
- User Manual
- License Agreement
Your not going to easily hide this device or have it blend in. It’s white, gray, and AT&T orange. Here is a picture to give you an idea of scale with my iPhone next to it. It’s like my AT&T U-Verse router, a good bit larger than I think it needs to be.
The installation is very easy. The quickstart guide walks you through everything. The key is that you have to activate it on the AT&T website first before you can use it. I imagine some stores will do this for you at time of purchase but I did mine myself at home. When you get home you’ll unbox the device, go to the AT&T wireless site, and activate the MicroCell. You’ll need the serial number of your MicroCell and the phone numbers you want to activate on the device. It’s all done through a wizard-like process. Picture below shows the management screen.
You’ll notice a list of authorized devices. AT&T allows you to put up to 10 devices on the authorized list. At any one time the MicroCell can have 4 active voice/data sessions. So four people can be talking, or two talking and two checking email.
Once you activate the device on your account the only thing left is to plug it in. Here is a shot of the back of the MicroCell. Oh yes, one more thing. This device has a GPS in it. What? That’s right. AT&T does this so you can’t buy one here in the US and take it to Europe and use it with your phone there. So, it needs to get a GPS signal. Mine is on my second floor about 8 feet from a window and has no issue. If you put yours in a basement it might be a concern. There is a GPS light on the front to let you know if it can’t get a lock. Annoying for some, I’m sure.
Connecting the device is very simple. There are two Ethernet ports on the back. One marked Ethernet and one marked Computer. If you aren’t using a router or firewall (and you should be!) you can plug your cable modem in to the Ethernet-marked port and your computer in to the Computer port. If you have a router or switch just connect the unit from the switch to the Ethernet-marked jack. AT&T does let you put the device in-line between your cablemodem (or DSL modem) and your router/firewall. This is “Option C” as named in the User Manual. The idea here is that the MicroCell can prioritize your cell traffic over data. I haven’t tested this yet…I don’t know how it affects NAT translation yet. My network, being the geek I am, is more complex than most so I’m not worrying about it yet. With my U-Verse 18Mb/1.5Mb connection I haven’t had any issues even when doing large downloads.
So once you’ve plugged in the data cables and the power cable the device will boot. It takes a few minutes and the first time it might reboot as it is configured to go find the latest firmware and update itself. There is no management of the device itself. I checked my DHCP logs and saw the IP it was assigned. There is no web interface. You can telnet to the device but I have no way of knowing the login credentials. It’s pretty hands-off. Below is a picture of the device once it is booted and operational.
Does It Work?
Yes. It appears to work pretty well. Here is a shot of my iPhone before the MicroCell.
Here is one with the new MicroCell.
I’ve had several calls on my phone since switching and the difference is night and day. Before my phone wouldn’t even ring half the time and I’d just get a voicemail notification. That hasn’t happened at all. Clarity seems to be the same as a normal call. No problems either switching to and from the MicroCell.
AT&T has caught a bit of flack for this device and the price, especially before people understood the unlimited voice plan. The #1 problem with the iPhone for most people is AT&T and in many cases I agree with that. But in my case at home AT&T really isn’t the problem. I can drive two blocks in any direction and get 4 bars no problem, it’s just where my house physically sits that causes the signal drop. To me this device is perfect. It’s not a repeater. It doesn’t require installation of an antenna. It sits on my desk in my office and provides 5 bars of 3G everywhere in the house. I don’t even know it’s there. Would I be happier with a $99 price point? Sure, but $150 is a good investment in the productivity I’ll get back when coworkers or customers call me on my cell phone. You’ll have to do your own math to decide if the unlimited plans are worth it for you. Unless I can get it free I won’t bother as we don’t go over our minutes anyway and have plenty in the rollover bank.
Had some questions. Below is a screenshot from the speedtest.net app with the MicroCell:
Range seems adequate. I can go to the end of my driveway and have 2 bars. You won’t be able to cover a large backyard or pool with the device in the house, but it should cover you on a deck or patio next to the house. Basically, once I got outside I lost a bar about every 20 or 30 feet. That’s with the unit in my office with 3 walls and the outside brick between us.
There is a GPS antenna jack on the back of the unit so if you can’t get a signal you can run a small antenna.