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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  • leexgx - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    the UMA thing looks good idea, seems Way more piratical then these base stations ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generic_Access_Networ... ) only ever seen it on blackberry phones thought, only issue i could see with them is if it doe snot work with the wireless router correctly or intermittently out of range of router Reply
  • julioromano - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    Very nice and geeky review.
    Thanks for all the infos!
    Reply
  • Simozene - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    1. These units need to be very cheap or free for consumers.
    2. Any minutes or data usage that is routed over this instead of AT&Ts regular network should not be counted towards the limits on your data plan. It's not their network so you should not have to pay for using it.

    If those two conditions are met I can see how this could be a very useful product.
    Reply
  • sxr7171 - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    But it's not. It can't even hand off properly. Reply
  • Chrisg331 - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    1st off, great article. Good methodology as well. Will you be able to test different handsets (Primarily different chipsets/antenna designs to eliminate bias on the dropped calls), possibly test a repeater (as mentioned before) and possibly test data usage pattern(s) for those that may be bandwidth capped on their broadband? Great job. Could really be useful to those looking to ditch landlines. Reply
  • GregHH - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    In your haste to slam AT&T you neglect to notice that the other cell carriers offer the same type of device. That implies their coverage must not be perfect and all encompassing. Everyone seems to think cell coverage should be ubiquitous whether in a metro area or in the wilderness. I feel good that my area finally got 3G coverage in December of 2010. Reply
  • JKflipflop98 - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    So, we're in the future looking back on the past then? Or we're in the past looking towards the current? Oh God, my head's going to explode. Reply
  • ivwshane - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    There is no required monthly cost. Buy just the microcell and use your existing minutes and data plan. Buy a microcell with a $20 feature and you can have unlimited minutes while using it and you also get a $100 rebate.

    No one is forcing anyone to buy these, at&t is simply giving it's users a choice, if you want to improve your in home coverage then buy one, otherwise don't.
    Reply
  • mikeshady - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    So if I understand it correctly the price,$20/month unlimited calling

    $10/month with AT&T DSL

    $0 with AT&T landline.
    Will i be able to use it for the unlimited free since i have att landline
    Reply
  • mrSHEiK124 - Tuesday, April 06, 2010 - link

    Those failed handover videos; that happens ALL OF THE TIME on at&t in the Tampa, FL area. If you're on a highway or main-road and venture off into the boonies, as you get booted off 3G all you can hear is distortion (the handover is successful and the call doesn't drop, but good luck continuing the phone call...) and weird audio artifacts. at&t...more bars in more places. Reply

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