Unless you've been living under a rock the past couple years, you've probably heard at least something about the state of AT&T's 3G HSPA coverage in the United States. The sad reality is that dead zones exist across virtually every carrier and in every major locale. Until recently however, if one of those dead zones was your place of residence or workplace, you were either stuck paying for a network you couldn't use, or left shopping for another carrier. Bad coverage at home or work - where customers can potentially spend 70% of their time - isn't just frustrating, it's experience-killing. Mix in device-carrier exclusivity, and you can see how frustration can mount rapidly.
 
Instead of being forced to switch, carriers are hoping that users will improve coverage at their homes and small offices with femtocells. Virtually all the major carriers are betting heavily on femtocells to at least partly solve network woes - and at the same time save them billions of dollars on network buildout costs. It's a controversial move that's win-win for the carriers - users improve coverage where it matters to them on their own dime, and keep paying carriers every month for their electronic obsession. In short, they're betting that femtocells can both solve challenging coverage issues indoors and simultaneously reduce churn. 
 
Verizon and Sprint already have finished rolling out their own femtocell offerings, and AT&T is joining the fray with a nationwide deployment of their own starting mid April and lasting several months. Although mid April is when the nationwide rollout begins, there are a number of trial markets where the AT&T MicroCell is already deployed, including Arizona, where it launched Sunday March 21st. I rushed to the store the following Monday, and have been testing, hammering, and picking it apart ever since. AT&T's femtocell is far from perfect, but if your only other option is no coverage at all, it'll save you a lot of frustration.
 
Network Recap
 
Let's briefly go over the network topology itself and understand where AT&T's "Microcell" fits in:
 
 
Right off the bat, we can see that AT&T's "MicroCell" branding is actually a misnomer - it's really a femtocell. If we're being really anal about our SI prefixes, "micro" could lead you to believe that the device sits somewhere between macrocells (carrier-installed "Node B" UMTS base transceiver stations) and picocells (smaller commercial repeaters). It's an important distinction if we're to really understand where this device really fits in relation to other cellular network hardware. 
 
For some time now, AT&T has been quietly installing picocells in Apple stores across the country - they're Nokia branded boxes about 3 feet tall, a foot wide and a foot deep mounted out of sight for improving coverage where it matters. I'm told that a number of Apple store employees have affectionately nicknamed these "cancer boxes." If you look in the illustration above, that description almost matches the picocell shown in the bottom right of the center frame. It's important to note that AT&T's commercial MicroCell product isn't this. Building on thinkfemtocell's table here, I've put together a rough comparison:
 
Property Macrocell Picocell Femtocell
Installation Carrier Carrier Customer
Backhaul Carrier Carrier Customer
Frequency Planning Carrier Carrier At activation
Site Planning Carrier Carrier Customer
Range Several Blocks - Kilometers Malls, Stores, Businesses - 10k feet or more Homes, Small Offices - 5k feet or less
Devices Allowed All Carrier Approved All Carrier Approved Customer Approved
 
While Node B antennas and picocells come with considerable setup overhead for the carriers, femtocells are entirely the consumer's responsibility - partly why the carriers love them. There's significantly less configuration that the carrier has to do; almost everything really critical happens during the activation process at power up. But we'll get into that later. 
AT&T's Femtocell: Enter the 3G MicroCell
POST A COMMENT

61 Comments

View All Comments

  • A beautiful mind - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    My Nokia N900 already uses the home/office wifi connection to access the internet, with the possibility to receive/make calls from/to skype.

    There is absolutely no extra functionality that is provided by the femtocell approach.
    Reply
  • softdrinkviking - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    For you and me, this is true.
    But not for everyone.

    That's the really sad thing about this device. It's designed as a way to nickel and dime poor souls whose homes are in a dead zone and absolutely have to answer their phone for business.

    Reply
  • nafhan - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Great article, and you did an excellent job of diving into the tech behind the femtocell.

    An interesting follow up to this article might be to see what kind of results you get from purchasing an antenna and repeater. I've seen antenna/repeater setups online in the $350 and up range, and wondered how they would do. If they work OK, it might be a viable alternative, especially for people without good internet connections.
    Reply
  • gwolfman - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Where is the print article feature on the new site? Reply
  • Maroon - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    They've been sneaking these things in Apple stores. No wonder the iPhone feelgood only lasts untill you get out of the store and have to rely on the "standard" AT&T network. LOL.

    Reply
  • soccerharms - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Are you kiddin' me? I am going to approach this from two angles. The first being that this article is completely fake. ITS APRIL 1st people! The tech community should have an uproar for such a device. We buy internet and it is usually our responsibility to distribute it around the house with a router for wireless and whatnot. HOWEVER, we do not buy a wireless......phone plan with the intention on increasing a carriers crappy signal in our own house out of our pocket. That's ludacris! There is another much cheaper solution...........its called a LAN line with a cordless phone HA!

    The only company that could profit from a device like this would be Apple. But they would have to make it a little more shiney and put that quarter eaten logo on the side :)

    Let the battles begin....
    Reply
  • Jaybus - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    This is like buying an airline ticket only to find there is no flight. Since they don't have a flight, the airline offers to sell you your own airplane. You have to provide your own pilot, fuel, and maintenance, but you still have to pay them the full price for a ticket whenever you fly your own airplane. So my idea is to start a car rental business that has no cars. Anyone willing to pay AT&T for a microcell that uses their own Internet connection would surely be willing to pay me a rental fee for driving their own car. Reply
  • HotFoot - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Eh... much of this market is iPhone users - people already willing to accept the concept of ecosystem lock-in. By a similar analogy to your car rental company, they're already willing to buy a car from a company that requires that they drive only on roads built or approved by that company, buy gas only at that company's stations, and buy car insurance from that company.

    Why not charge them for the roadside delivery of a jerry can of gas when the customer finds out the station filled their tank with water instead of fuel?
    Reply
  • yacoub - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I give it a year or two before the first cancer danger report comes out. ;) Reply
  • loydcase - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    AT&T cell reception at my house is weak in spots. OTOH, if a femtocell allows me to rip out my landlines, it might be worth it. So I'd like to know if a femtocell would be viable for that purpose. Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now