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
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  • dkapke - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I can't speak for what AT&Ts plans are, but I think what a lot of you aren't seeing, at least in terms of Sprint, is I LOVE their femtocell. Not because I can't get service or have crappy coverage, but because it allows UNLIMITED calls. I can get their cheapest plan, eliminate the home phone, and so long as I'm not driving between 6a-6p all of my calls are free. I work from home so this is great.

    So, all of you saying this is AT&Ts method of uncongesting their network - yes, that's true. But you're missing a very valid argument FOR these - unlimited calling. I guess you have to determine how often you're at home and how many minutes you use at home before night/weekend calling kicks in, but for those of us who work from home, these are awesome and well worth the $20. Oh, and when my kids come down for the summer and spend all day on the phone while they're sitting around at the house...yeah...it pays for itself very quickly.
    Reply
  • echtogammut - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    They even collaborated with AT&T on this one : http://www.wireless.att.com/learn/why/3gmicrocell/...

    Seriously, what really gets me about this, is I installed a booster for the last company I worked with because they were not able get calls when more than 5 data phones were in the building. I called AT&T to see if I could work with them about setting up a device similar to the microcell and they transferred me to an engineer that warned me off boosting the signal. Not that long ago they called me and offered this device to fix my reception issues and charge me for another service plan... no thank you, the booster is working fine.
    Reply
  • kamikaze56 - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I agree with all you guys saying that you wont pay for a monthly cellular bill, buy your own "cell" wich uses YOUR own internet connection.. But just remember a few facts:

    - First of all, this device is aimed to people who have very low to zero coverage on their house/workplace and DONT want to change carrier (Or cant due to contracts), it is not aimed to people who can change their carrier at anytime..

    - Second, most of the "negative" review on this article was found on location 1 (Location in urban area, with a really good coonection, crowded spectrum etc) remember, this device is aimed to locations with Zero to Really bad coverage

    - 3rd and most important: Yes, you are paying your bill, you are paying by your own cell and using your own internet connection but remember, you are just using like 1/50 part of your connection in order to REACH THE CORE NETWORK, what happens in the core network and forward its still being done by the carrier (And this part of the communication process is the one that costs more), so your basically paying for using this core network. If you dont agree with this.. DONT BUY IT
    Reply
  • kidboodah - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    There seems to be a misunderstanding on the pricing of this.

    You pay $20 a month for unlimited minutes while connected to it. This includes up to 4 simultaneous connections.

    So let's say you have a 1400 FamilyTalk plan, with 4 lines. That's $109.99 per month normally. Add the Microcell and you have Unlimited talking from home for $129.99 for all lines.

    Compare this to an Unlimited Family Talk plan for $70+50+50+50....and you're saving $100 a month.

    It's definitely worth the initial cost for alot of customers who are on Family plans and want unlimited service from home -- while ALSO giving them full signal strength.
    Reply
  • taltamir - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    there is no such thing as a radius in square feet.
    Square feet is used to describe the area.
    Since the area of a circle is Pie*r^2 then ((5000 ft^2)/pie)^0.5 = r
    or a radius of 39.89 feet
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Oops, that's a typo! Fixed!

    -Brian Klug
    Reply
  • Ardric - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    The TCP and UDP ports you've listed are only used for provisioning, when the device boots. They don't carry the voice traffic. There's no use in bothering with them. Especially HTTPS -- do you really want to elevate that for your banking site too!?

    The voice traffic is on the IPsec tunnel, and that's carried by the ESP protocol. ESP is IP protocol 50. There's no port number.

    So ignore the TCP and UDP ports and prioritize on ESP, preferably in combination with the particular AT&T IP addresses. That's how you should set up your QoS matching.
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    You're totally right about the provisioning ports being used only for initial setup, but the device is using IPsec NAT-T, which is definitely 4500/UDP.

    To be honest, all my QoS rules prioritized the device in general - I'd say doing it with a static DHCP lease IP address or MAC addy makes the most sense.

    Cheers,
    Brian Klug
    Reply
  • SmCaudata - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    With T-mobile I have UMA on my phones so I can make calls anywhere I have a wireless signal. I don't need an extra box in my home AND I can use it in the deepest basement of my work.

    AT&T sucks. The iPhone is the ONLY thing they have going for them.
    Reply
  • leexgx - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    at any time did you use 2g only (set the Phone to 3g off) as i find 3g/HSDPA mostly unreliable (more so on the Iphones not so much on windows phones with HSDPA off) problem is most phone makers set the Hand over to GSM or 2g for there phones to low and i find 3g has more problems with weaker signal (if should move to 2g when signal is below 20% back to 3g when above 35%, as when 3g gets to less then 10-20% it seems to be unreliable) Reply

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