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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  • MyTechLife2 - Tuesday, April 06, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the in-depth review! I got my MicroCell yesterday and have been testing it thoroughly. I've also experienced problems on the opposite side of the house from the MicroCell with deteriorating call quality, dropped calls during hand-off and even after hand-off. I call 611 so my test calls are free (I didn't get a MicroCell calling plan). There's an extensive thread on the AT&T forums about dropped calls http://forums.wireless.att.com/t5/AT-T-3G-MicroCel...

    A few initial observations:

    • It runs on 1900Mhz, even though AT&T also has 850Mhz spectrum here. I use the SignalLoc BlackBerry app to check this and other call stats.

    • In my 2-story 2100 ft. house, the MIcroCell is located on the northernmost upstairs end of the house. Sometimes on the southernmost downstairs end of the house it will often switch from the MicroCell to the cell network. Locking my phone to 3G only seems to have minimized that.

    • I had a situation where I was on the MicroCell, but it was showing "SOS only". Putting the MicroCell in the DMZ on the router and power-cycling the MicroCell seems to have fixed that for now.

    • 2 of our 3 phones had to be power-cycled before they would recognize and switch over to using the MicroCell.

    • In the far side of my house while while standing still, signal strength will fluctuate from -110 (worst) to -70 (best) on my BlackBerry Bold 9700. About every 1/2 second It fluctuates down about 1 bar until it reaches 1 bar, then right back up to 5 bars. Seems like some power shifting going on.

    • The 3G antenna seems to be somewhat directional. I seem to get the best coverage on the far end of the house when the front of the device is pointed in that direction. I tried laying the unit horizontally with the top of it facing the far end of the house and that killed signal strength there. I was hoping to get some down-tilt in the antenna pattern to reach the far end downstairs, but that wasn't the way to do it.

    Did you experiment with placement of the device?
    Reply
  • mobius147 - Sunday, April 25, 2010 - link

    My unit covers one or two rooms at the most. In attempting to purchase additional units in our area ATT will refuse to sell more than one unit per household. Reason given is that the units will not
    handoff to one another. Still looking for a way to cover more of the house.
    Does anyone have information on the units mentioned in the review that are used in the
    Apple stores.
    My uplink data rate seems capped at 50 Kb or so and downlink about 1.5 Mb. Adequate for phone
    but "light" for data compared to a standard cell site.
    Im sure more folks have come up against the limited coverage. Interested to hear possible
    remedies.
    Reply
  • Raajah - Saturday, December 11, 2010 - link

    Wonder if anyone has noted the fact that Microcell looses the wireless connection each time a phone call is received or made from a landline conneted. To be sure, I need to mention that we have dsl from Bellsouth as well as the land line from the same company. There seems to be a conflict that occurs probably because voice calls are carried on the same line connected to dsl service. In this situation it is not worth buying the Microcell. Reply
  • SonarTech - Monday, December 20, 2010 - link

    There are actually two tamper traps inside the AT&T Microcell - one on the front of the PCB, and once on the back. The FCC pictures don't show the full tamper mechanism installed on the board, only the empty headers. The top-side tamper trap is located to the upper-right of the Ralink chip, U37, and consists of three jumper headers sitting side-by-side. During assembly, a gray plastic frame sits over this header. After that frame has been installed, three jumpers are installed on top of the frame. One or two of those jumpers aren't actually jumpers, however - they're just chunks of plastic that looks like jumpers. When the case is installed, two long plastic hooks built into the sides of the case "lock" into the sides of that gray plastic frame. Once locked in place, there's no easy way to remove them. If you attempt to open the case, you'll pull either the front-side or back-side tamper jumpers off the headers and you won't know what order to replace them. The odds of you getting them back in the same order they came off is very low. Once the unit is powered up, the jumpers get checked. If the pattern doesn't match what the unit expects, it goes into a tamper lock-down which, as far as I can tell, is a permanent condition requiring factory JTAG to clear.

    The rear (bottom) tamper header is located about 3 inches away from the top-side tamper header, near the unpopulated pads of D25. Again, it's a set of three 2-pin jumpers sitting side-by-side. It's also the only jumpers on the bottom-side of the board.

    Although very tedious, it IS possible to ascertain the correct positioning of the top-side jumpers (and blanks) with the case installed, but you have to know exactly where to look and what to look for.

    The bottom-side jumpers, however, are nearly impossible to see through the installed case, and I haven't yet found an easy way to record their values before opening the case.

    If you have no intentions of returning the unit for warranty service, the easiest way to get inside this case without bricking the unit would be to cut the case open, taking extra care around the clips that lock into the gray plastic tamper traps.

    Besides - you'll do significant (and very obvious) damage to the case just trying to get it open. You'll break at least 4 clips (that are designed to break, by the way) and you'll likely distort the plastic so it won't go together the right way again anyway.

    If you need nice hi-res pictures of the board, top and bottom, I have them - with the tamper traps installed.

    SonarTech
    Reply
  • SonarTech - Monday, December 20, 2010 - link

    One last update: The top-side tamper header is screened as J15, and the bottom-side header is J16. Both have traces that feed right into the Ralink RT2150F chip (U37). Reply
  • ivioo - Monday, April 11, 2011 - link

    I was wondering if you can show me where the tamper jumpers go. I'm pretty sure I know where 1 jumper goes but I have 2 jumpers left that I don't know where they go and then the 2 dummy ones Reply
  • vsa1977 - Thursday, March 03, 2011 - link

    This article seems to be well written based on facts. I however am an end user and have little knowledge on how this stuff works.

    This article states that "GPS is critical for getting very precise and accurate timing signals for the radio without expensive clock hardware". Would it make any difference in terms of performance if I get an external GPS antenna and connect to this Microcell? I have the microcell placed in a closet since my networking components are deployed there and the GPS at that location is pretty weak.

    Calls using the microcell is not often clear and I lose the signal all together maybe once in two weeks. I then have to resync-lock with GPS by taking it closer to the window and then back into the closet again.

    Is there any way to increase the range of the microcell by using any kind of external boosters or gain antennas? I do not see any options to connect any external antennas.

    I would appreciate if I get an answer on the external GPS antenna's effect on performance.
    Reply
  • akaken - Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - link

    you dont have to pay that 19.99 charge for unlimited microcell calling but what it does is give you UNLIMITED MINUTES WHILE YOU ARE ON YOUR MICROCELL your plan minutes are not used while on your microcell. Reply
  • MSSS - Monday, September 26, 2011 - link

    In an urban area near UC Berkeley (20min from SF) we are in a "dead zone" with irregular tower access.

    With the Microcell, we get constantly dropped calls and cannot be heard by the person on the other end of the line, often after a minute or two.

    Apparently, the microcell keeps handing off the calls to a mystery tower nearby, and cutting off calls.

    here’s what ATT says:

    In researching your issue we are not finding any network issues and see that the issue is with the micro cell handing off to towers in the area which will often cause the call to disconnect.

    They offer NO solution - they will replace the microcell, just in case it's the problem. But we are frustrated.

    One forum suggests moving the microcell to a room with bad reception:

    http://forums.att.com/t5/3G-MicroCell/add-option-t...
    Re: add option to disable handoffs completely to prevent dropped calls
    Options
    07:42:21 AM - 05-17-2010
    I've stumbled upon an option - put the MicroCell in a room with poor signal from the macro network.
    Over the past 6 weeks I've tried the MicroCell in 5 different rooms in my home in an attempt to keep it from handing off the the macro network prematurely. Placing it in the room with the worst signal from the macro network has solved the problem.
    The only drawback is that now the MicroCell will not in-call handoff to the macro network when leaving my home, moving down the street. The call always drops now. When it was in other rooms in my home it would successfully hand-off to a nearby cell about 1/2 the time. While a drawback, I've rarely found the need to continue a conversation while leaving my home.
    Reply
  • PointTechScottsdale - Wednesday, March 07, 2012 - link

    Just wanted to post a note to thank you for this great dissection of the microcell. Your work and writings are by far the best that I have been able to find on the web over the last six months.

    You had just the right amount of detail about just the issue I was looking for. Thanks and keep up the good work!

    Elliott

    --
    Point Technologists
    Scottsdale, AZ
    (480) 744-6464
    Reply

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