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AT&T 3G MicroCell Review – 2011

Introduction

I am a long time AT&T subscriber, not because I particularly love the company, but because in my area, the competition sucks even more in terms of signal strength and coverage. While AT&T’s signal is relatively decent outside the house, inside the strenght is atrocious, my iPhone 4 gets only 1 line and 50% of the time the call is dropped. I called AT&T many times to complain to no avail. You can imagine my surprise when I got a letter from AT&T a couple of weeks ago stating that they are having a promotion for a free 3G Microcell and I immediately jumped in the car and drove to my local AT&T store to get one. One our later, my new gadget was unpacked, installed and activated. I did use it for almost three weeks now and the conclusions are described in this AT&T 3G MicroCell Review.

Unpacking

Inside the box you’ll find the 3G Microcell device itself, an Ethernet cable and the power adapter. An installation/setup guide is also included. The box is quite large for what it does, larger than a regular router and even larger than an external desktop harddrive.

Installation and Setup

Let’s start with a little introduction: What is the AT&T 3G Microcell? The 3G Microcell is basically your own micro cellular tower that creates a blanket of 3G signal inside your house. The call is routed over your Internet connection, so at a minimum, a DSL connection (1.5 Mbps downstream and 768 Kbps upstream) is necessary. If you do not have a wired Internet connection (you rely on tethering foe example) you are out of luck.

If you are concerned of whether the neighbors will be able to use it, the answer is no, unless you let them. By default, the 3G Microcell comes configured with your cell phone numbers activated in your AT&T wireless account and you can add additional cell phone numbers up to a limit of 10. You can also remove any phone number accepted by the 3G Microcell later if you stop using that phone / number.

The setup is quite simple so I won’t get into too many details. You’ll have to plug the unit into one of the Ethernet sockets of your switch / router and power it up. You’ll then have to navigate to AT&T website per the included instructions, log in into your AT&T wireless account and activate the 3G Microcell from there. Don’t forget to write down tis serial number before proceeding, you’ll need it to complete the activation process. After everything is filled on AT&T website, it should take between 15 minutes and one hour for the 3G Microcell to actually be activated. AT&T will send you an instant message when the microcell is activated.

You’ll also have to restart your cellphone so it can connect to the microcell. If the activation has succesfully completed and your 3G Microcell is working properly, you’ll notice that the AT&T 3G connection will become AT&T M-Cell. The signal strengh won’t be a full 5 liner in the entire house but it will certainly be better than before.

GPS and 911 Calls

A very important aspect of the 3G Microcell functionality that I felt needs special discussion is its ability to provide address information for emergency 911 calls. AT&T 3G Microcell has an integrated GPS receiver and if you want to use location services, you’ll need an unobstructed view of the sky. If your house only has one story, this might be uncessesary. The GPS signal light on my unit indicated that a GPS signal was found even in the middle of the house. Your case might differ though, but if you keep your unit at the address you registered with, you don’t really need location services. If you travel, you can take the microcell with you and in this case, the location service for 911 calls won’t work.

The GPS receiver is also used to ensure that the unit is not used ouuside AT&T service area and to stop you to use it abroad. I certainly wish a workaround would be found to allow cheap calls while traveling internationally.

Conclusion

Once the activation is completed, you’ll immediately be able to notice a much improved signal. In my case, I only got 5 lines in the immediate proximity of the MicroCell which I installed in the cnter of the house. Put a couple of walls in between and the signal strengh drops to 3 lines. It is however more than enough to have your calls in excellent conditions and since the installation, our phones never dropped a single call. AT&T recommended range is around 40 feet and the microcell is capable of delivering signal in both 850MHz and 1900MHz bands.

The are certain issues that I experienced with my iPhone 4. Sometimes, after I travel and return back home, it only detects the microcell after a restart. I have to mention than both mine  / my wife’s iPhones are jailbroken and I re-spring quite often so this is what might cause the issue. If you jailbroken your iPhone and experience detection problems, bear in mind that just a re-spring doesn’t solve the issue, you’ll actually have to power off/on again the phone to detect the 3G Microcell succesfully.

One peculiar (in my opinion, for AT&T is a money maker) aspect of using the 3G Microcell is that the minutes / data usage counts against your subscription limit. Considering that usign a 3G Microcell brings only advantages to AT&T like easying the load on their cell towers and decreases the number of complaints against their crappy indoor coverage, and it actually uses your own Internet connection for the calls, AT&T should pay YOU to use it, not the other way around. Of course, AT&T has its own plans and tries to shamelessly sell you unlimited minutes through your microcell for $20 / month. Data usage will still count against your plan limit, but this is why you have WiFi, right?.

All in all, I am very happy with the AT&T 3G Microcell. It works well and it certainly improved our cell coverage in our house. It is highly recommended to get one if you can obtain it for free and have issues with dropped calls indoor. There is also a limit of 4 simultaneous calls but I can’t imagine it being an issue for most of the users.

Pros

  • It works very well
  • if you qualify, you can get it for free

Cons

  • unlimited minutes cost an additional $20 / month but this is no fault of the microcell itself.
  • only 3G capable phones are supported, if you have older phones you are out of luck
  • if you initiate a call from a regular tower and walk in your home while talking, the call will not take advantage of the 3G Microcell. You’ll need to have the call initiated in a Microcell area to take advantage of the improved coverage.
  • You need a wired interned connection but you can full it by using an extender or a bridge.

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