• AT&T 3G Microcell Review : A Piece of Junk

    I have an iPhone and AT&T. Like many, I find that AT&T's coverage simply does not work for me. I get horrendous coverage at my house, and considering that I work from home, it's hard to balance my love of the iPhone with my general dissatisfaction with the phone service AT&T provides.

    I was excited when I first heard of the 3G Microcell that AT&T announced several months ago. Last week, it finally became available for purchase in my area (suburbs of Washington DC) and so it was a no-brainer for me and my business to pony up the $150 to get the promised 5 bars of cellular coverage.

    I returned the piece of junk to the AT&T store this morning.

    The 3G Microcell is a device that creates a miniature 3G tower in your home, using your Internet connection to route your voice calls instead of real cell towers. It is ideal for places where there is Internet, but no cell phone towers.

    Out of the box, it looks nifty, just like a nice Wifi router. Setup was pretty simple, with activation through AT&T taking about 30 minutes. As soon as it came online, my iPhone found it and displayed 3G M-Cell as the carrier. Success!

    My first test calls went beautifully. In my office, where I typically have zero bars of service, I had a full 5 bars and was making calls with excellent clarity. The Microcell was forwarding my 3G calls over my fiber-optic Internet connection flawlessly. The only time I heard any signal degradation was when I was downloading large amounts of data on my computers (such as my cloud backups to Backblaze).

    By the 2nd day, however, I found the fatal flaw that made me return the device. When your phone is attached to the Microcell, and your phone detects a 3G tower, it will switch your call to the real 3G tower. But it won't switch back!

    So here's what ended up happening on many of my calls: I start the call when I am in my office (or anywhere within 20-30 feet of the Microcell). It starts off fine, no problem with the call or clarity. I walk towards the kitchen where the phone detects my VERY spotty 3G signal from the tower, so it switches automatically to the tower. I move back to the office, or the other 90% of my house with no appreciable 3G signal, and the call drops! Since it can't switch the call BACK to the Microcell, once you are on the spotty 3G signal, you are stuck there.

    Furthering my frustration, there is no way to prevent this automatic switching from happening. It would be great if I could tell my phone or the Microcell to never switch me to the real tower. But you can't, so I ended up dropping any call where I ventured more than 20 feet from the Microcell.

    Forum posts for this device decry this action as well - this is a flaw that has been known since they started testing the device last year. The fact that they haven't fixed this with a firmware update leads me to believe that it's not going to get fixed.

    This failure of the device, combined with AT&T's decision to increase their contract termination rates, has led me to the decision to dump my iPhone for an Android phone that is on a decent network. I still have my iPad to use all those fantastic iPhone OS apps, and since I got my iPad, my app usage on my iPhone has gone way down. What I need right now is a usable phone and it is clear that AT&T cannot provide that service to me.
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. arraknid's Avatar
      arraknid -
      These femtocells are always low powered, maybe a quarter that of a wifi point, so they suffer with range problems. Here in Europe, they aren't popular because of that very reason. If the power gets boosted, they fall outside the safety limits set for microwave transmissions, so become illegal.

      Interesting business model though - getting the customer to pay for equipment that makes up for the shortcomings of the provider's coverage!
    1. Osc's Avatar
      Osc -
      Quote Originally Posted by arraknid View Post
      These femtocells are always low powered, maybe a quarter that of a wifi point, so they suffer with range problems.
      I think that's what surprised me most - how low powered it really was. I expected to at least get a good signal within 50 feet of the Microcell, but it started to putter out at around 20 feet. Terrible terrible product.

      Honestly, I didn't mind paying the extra money as a one time fee if it would guarantee excellent coverage and call quality. It was a no hassle return, so I didn't really lose anything except time.
    1. arraknid's Avatar
      arraknid -
      You get the impression that someone thought this was a good idea without thinking any further?

      And getting customers to pay for network shortcomings is absolutely classic.

      Time to go back to a fixed line.