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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  • Some1ne - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    So let me get this straight. I'm supposed to pay AT&T for access to a device that uses my own Internet connection to patch up holes in their network? That's just ridiculous. It's AT&T's inadequate network coverage that makes these devices necessary in the first place, and now they're actually trying to profit off of having poor network coverage. Pretty much removes any incentive for them to improve their network, now doesn't it?

    These devices should be provided free of charge, as a "sorry you can't actually use the network that you paid to access" kind of token. Anyone who pays for one of these is just giving AT&T one more reason not to fix their coverage issues.
    Reply
  • Alexstarfire - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I rather agree. Makes you wonder what they actually do with all the money they receive monthly. Also means that if you purchase one, much like how it should be if you use an unlocked phone, that your monthly bill should drop in price. Except in this case if they are using your broadband connection then it should practically be free since it provides next to no burden on them, though I don't know what happens after it goes through the connection. Reply
  • therealnickdanger - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    How do you know that the actual cost of the device and the technology driving it isn't already subsidized by your bill? Perhaps you're only paying 10% of what it really costs. Reply
  • vol7ron - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Even if a subsidy were included, which would only cover some (not all) of the costs, the fact that people have to pay anything more for it is ridiculous given the nature of what a cell company is: a service. Cell phone companies are in business for one reason and by making you pay anything more to receive the core product is truely sad.

    There are other companies, like Cisco, that have built their own repeaters and Mobile-to-VOIP products, which I commend, because they are a technology company not providing the service. They're taking something bad, that they don't have control of, and making it bearable. Cell phone providers are at the other end, they have full control but are making you pay more, even though you aren't getting the initial benefit of what you're paying for in the first place.
    Reply
  • zinfamous - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    This is kind of where I sit with the argument. a one-time ~$150 cost to the customer *may* be cheaper in the end, than having a network-wide upgrade that increases costs across all customers, paying more and more per month.

    Perhaps it also improves access to those willing, and needing increased network performance, paying a bit more for the premium, while those customers with little need for the bandwidth go on about their normal use, paying what they always have. It's like...a single-payer network structure! :D
    Reply
  • DoeBoy - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    IT seems to me some people forget that companies are in business to make money. This is a great way for ATT to make a lot of extra money. I live in a rural area and i complain all the time in an area they say has coverage that does not at all. While this would aid me in getting better service it also would require me to pay for an inet connection which is not covered by att. Clearly they aren't a moral company when your service is so bad you have to have a product that uses some other technology(a la internet) and then charge the person not only for that product that gets you service but not even lower your bill since you technically arent using their towers really at all under this sucker. Clearly Verizon and ATT are both big 500lb gorillas. In europe its much easier to get a cheap cell phone deal and coverage. Clark Howard seems to think ATT and Verizon are going to end up being more corporate and smaller companies like t-mobile, cricket, metropcs and what not will fill in the void for the regular consumer. Reply
  • Some1ne - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    The problem is that when you look at the pricing matrix, not only is there a fixed upfront cost, there are also recurring monthly fees. It doesn't matter how much the up front cost is subsidized. The monthly fees mean that sooner or later, AT&T will be turning a profit on these devices.

    And even worse, the fees are higher if you're not already using AT&T as your ISP and/or land-line provider. That makes the least sense out of anything, since if you have a different ISP, then by running the femtocell you are completely unburdening AT&T's network, and dumping all the work onto someone else. The get to sell your bandwidth to someone else, and charge you more while doing it.
    Reply
  • taltamir - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    in computers, the technology is made mostly of sand... it costs practically nothing.
    It is the technology you are paying for...

    However there is one major component here, AT&T themselves look at it as a "cost cutting method"... in other words it is intended to cost them LESS, aka, they are making MORE of a profit on you if you get one of those then without.

    The whole thing is absurd. You pay hundreds of dollars for a black box device with tamper protection and absolutely horrid performance (compared to wifi), then you pay a monthly fee for the privilege of using said device...

    they should just put wifi in every device and have wifi be free (but they usually charge a monthly fee for that privilege as well)
    Reply
  • ant1pathy - Friday, April 02, 2010 - link

    You are, of course, welcome to change carriers. If you feel the service you are recieving is subpar and another carrier would be better for you, the termination fee is probably less than the cost of the box. If you're continuing to pay for a service that does not meet your needs and you can't really use, then you are the pefect consumer. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - link

    I completely agree. It's absolutely nuts IMO. Reply

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