AT&T Microcell, first thoughts

After the recent update to my iPhone 3GS software that finally indicated the true number of connection bars I was getting when at my home (it went from 4-5 regularly to 0-1 regularly) I realized I either needed to move off AT&T ASAP, suffer through until the Verizon iPhone appears (please please please!), or perhaps try out the “Micro cell” from AT&T.


Honestly the Micro cell technology sounded pretty cool: A device that plugs into your home network which provides local cell phone signal to AT&T phones within a 4000 square foot radius. Not bad. At last, I could have the cell service I pay for. Yes, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am constantly surprised that my service is so crappy. I mean, don’t I live in one of the most technologically advanced areas of the world? In an area where income is high? In a densely populated urban center? Why wouldn’t cell phone service be as good as, or better than, any where else in the world? Surely the folks who live in the Greater Silicon Valley wouldn’t suffer with substandard (or worse NO) cell service?

They do. It has been horrendous since I moved here over 10 years ago. And it is well chronicled that it has only gotten worse. In fact, I can attest to the fact that my iPhone 3GS is a remarkable device that is wonderful for everything…except phone calls. 9 out of 10 calls “fail” regardless of signal strength. In many large swaths of San Francisco, I can get no cell service whatsoever. In fact, the other night I was at AT&T Park at the Giants Championship Series game against the Phillies. You know, the one where Juan U-Ribe U-Ribe U-Ribe hit the walk off sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 9th? What a game! And I tried to tweet about it. And I tried to post on Facebook about it. All during the game. But you know what? In the park NAMED AFTER AT&T, complete with FREE WIRELESS HOTSPOT, I couldn’t get online. I couldn’t make a call, and I couldn’t send an email. *sigh*

Back to my story: My wife just traded in her Blackberry for an iPhone 4. This happened last night. It was then I realized that most of the calling we do is on our cell phones. And much of it at home. Especially to talk to family. I had to try the Micro Cell. So here are my early thoughts…

1. Standing in line at the AT&T store is akin to standing in line at the DMV, except there aren’t as many lines and the expectation isn’t that you’ll have to wait for 45 minutes before you can purchase something that is sitting in a box, right there, that I knew I wanted to buy when I walked in.

2. Once you get to a helpful AT&T Store clerk however, things go quickly. Well done.

3. Pricing. The Pricing is confusing for an AT&T Micro cell, largely because there are all sorts of rebates available based on existing levels of subscription with AT&T. First you get money back if you have AT&T Internet Service (I don’t because frankly, as much as I hate Comcast, AT&T DSL service speed pales in comparison with my cable modem). Second, you get money back if you subscribe to their unlimited Micro Cell plan. This plan let’s you talk for unlimited minutes on your Micro Cell without using your cell phone minutes. This privilege costs $20/month. Otherwise your minutes get used up, even though you aren’t on a cell tower…but are on your own high speed internet line. If you already have an unlimited calling plan like I do, there is no $20/month fee…but you don’t get the discount either.

All told, I paid $150 plus tax for my Micro Cell. One time fee, no additional service fees necessary. If it works and I can make calls, it will be totally worth it.

4. Setup – This was simple. Register the Micro Cell online with AT&T. During registration you can select up to 10 phone numbers that will have access to the Micro Cell signal (I suppose to prevent neighbors from glomming off the same service). Plug in ethernet cable to Micro Cell and then to Wireless router (Airport Extreme). Power down everything. Power up in order: Cable Modem, Airport Express (wireless router), Micro Cell. Then wait. Wait for 90 minutes for the GPS in the Micro Cell to find signal and for the registration to complete. In the time I wrote this post, the micro-cell registered itself…and my phone now shows 3 bars in my office (on the other side of my small house) along with an m-cell (instead of 3G) designation. Looks like it works! Overall: Pricey, but easy to set up and register…and if the phone service improves, well I guess it is worth it. Still, seems sad that I have to buy a device to achieve the level of expected cell service I already pay for…but at this point if that is what it takes, so be it.

2 thoughts on “AT&T Microcell, first thoughts

  1. Mine didn’t work whatsoever. The phone doesn’t hand off well between the m-cell and the regular network so it drops calls when you move out of range. The range in my case was always so small that my entire house became a halfway zone where I couldn’t quite connect to either network and ended up with no coverage at all. Finally my phone stopped recognizing the m-cell and instructions said I had to reset the phone to factory network settings, so I returned the m-cell. Hope you have better luck.


  2. So far so good. It seems to work about 80% of the time. You are right though, it can’t hand off from the cell tower to the m-cell, which is frustrating because the most common behavior is for me to be talking hands free in the car and then walk into the house still on the phone. Rather than me talking in the house and needing to go somewhere.The range is lame. Really lame. It says 5000 square feet, but I thing that is probably 5000 square feet in the vacuum of deep space, not in my house with plaster walls and electrical wires.


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