I live in what’s called a “fringe coverage area” for AT&T. I get one or two bars on my iPhone 4 when I’m home. Calls sometimes drop, and callers often complain about the connection quality. Outside of moving or hoping AT&T builds a cell tower nearby, the best option to improve call quality is AT&T’s 3G MicroCell. Made by Cisco, the 3G MicroCell is a “femtocell”--a cellular base station that covers up to 5,000 square feet, according to AT&T. The device connects to your home broadband network, and it can tremendously improve cell phone reception in your house.
Improve your spotty AT&T service--on your own dime.
It only works with 3G-capable AT&T phones (so no dice if you have a first-gen iPhone), and it can’t create AT&T coverage in an area that has none. You specify which phones can use the 3G MicroCell (it supports up to four calls simultaneously, though you can provision up to 10 numbers), so you don’t have to worry about neighbors or passers-by using your MicroCell. Once you’ve registered the device, setup is plug and play--or at least it’s supposed to be. First, you plug the device into your router using an included Ethernet cable, then it registers on your network, gets a GPS lock from a satellite, and tries to connect to AT&T’s network, which can take up to 90 minutes. This seems to be where users are most likely to encounter problems--as I did. My 3G MicroCell couldn’t get a GPS lock in its original location (near my basement office). If you have trouble getting a GPS connection, the 3G MicroCell supports external GPS antennas, though AT&T stores don’t stock one. Luckily it’s an industry-standard connector, so a third-party antenna will work. In my case, relocating the MicroCell to a spot closer to a window did the trick.
As for the device itself, the 3G MicroCell is bulky, plastic, and ugly. It’s shaped like an upside-down Y, colored with a gray spine and AT&T’s trademark white-and-orange piping. Compared to Apple’s Airport Extreme, it’s large, measuring 8.5 inches tall, 1.25 inches thick, and about 6.25 inches wide. Besides its status-light activity, you know the 3G MicroCell is operational because the iPhone carrier ID switches from “AT&T” to “AT&T M-Cell” whenever it’s in range. The signal-strength indicator on my phone immediately jumps from one or two to four to five bars. If you start a call on your MicroCell and leave your house, the device will switch you to a tower once you’re out of range, so you’ll get seamless coverage when you’re mobile--sort of. Unfortunately, calls that initiate on a tower won’t transfer to the MicroCell when you get home.
And though the MicroCell improved call quality, it isn’t perfect. Since it uses your broadband connection to transmit voice data, you’re now subject to the limitations of your internet pipe. I still get garbled transmissions on occasion, which clear up after a few seconds, and there’s a perceptible lag when the call is first established, but it usually evens out quickly. While there’s no monthly fee to use the 3G MicroCell, AT&T bills calls against your AT&T voice plan, unless you opt for a $20 per month “unlimited” MicroCell plan. That injects an element of double jeopardy to the whole thing because you’re losing both broadband bandwidth and cellular minutes when using it.
In a perfect world, AT&T would have better network coverage and the 3G MicroCell would be unnecessary. If your coverage at home sucks, the 3G MicroCell fills a need--although the idea of paying a service provider even more cash to fill in gaps in their service via your own infrastructure feels a little maddening.
REQUIREMENTS: Broadband internet connection, GPS accessibility, AT&T 3G phone
Improves call quality and signal strength. Easy to set up. Works seamlessly.
Ugly. GPS needs window access or external antenna. Dependent on your broadband network. Uses phone-plan minutes unless you opt for fee-based unlimited plan.