AT&T's Femtocell

If you're already familiar with the femtocell offerings from Sprint and Verizon, you'll find the AT&T MicroCell is much the same. It's the same premise - calls and data from phones you specify are routed over your own internet connection. Except for one small distinction - AT&T's offers 3G HSPA/UMTS data up to 3.6 Mbits/s alongside voice, where the Sprint Airave and Verizon Network Extender offer 2.5G 1xRTT CDMA2000 data at 144 Kbits/s alongside voice. Of course, that means for the AT&T MicroCell to be useful, you'll need a 3G phone; the older GSM/EDGE only iPhone 2G won't see any benefit from AT&T's femtocell. 
 
It's interesting to note that virtually all of the major carriers in the USA now offer femtocells or similar means of expanding coverage. T-Mobile is the notable exception, which foregos a femtocell in favor of Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) - a 3GPP standard that allows the same cellular data to be sent over any IP network, most commonly over WiFi. Let's compare the offerings from all the major providers:
 
Carrier AT&T Verizon Sprint T-Mobile
Solution Femtocell - "3G MicroCell" Femtocell - "Network Extender" Femtocell - "Airave" UMA - "HotSpot@Home"
Branding Cisco Samsung Samsung NA
Technology 3G UMTS/HSPA for voice and data 2.5G CDMA 2000 1xRTT 2.5G CDMA 2000 1xRTT UMA voice over WiFi
Simultaneous Calls 4 Simultaneous 3 Simultaneous 3 Simultaneous NA
Standby Approved Callers 10 100 50 NA
Data Bitrate 3.6 megabits/s (HSDPA 3.6) 144 kilobits/s 144 kilobits/s NA
GPS Fix Required Yes Yes Yes NA
Upfront Cost $150.00 or $50 with $100 rebate and $20/month unlimited calling plan $249.99 $99.99 Wireless AP Cost
Hand-On/Hand-Off No/Yes No/Yes No/Yes Inter AP Handover/Yes
Coverage 5000 square feet 5000 square feet 5000 square feet WiFi AP range
Add Ons

$20/month unlimited calling

$10/month with AT&T DSL

$0 with AT&T landline

None

$5/month required 

$10/month unlimited calling - 1 line

$20/month unlimited calling - multi line

$10/month unlimited calling
 
While Sprint and Verizon are offering virtually the same Samsung-branded product, AT&T's MicroCell is a new femtocell bearing dominant Cisco branding. The same caveats apply here: the device needs to be able to get GPS fix, meaning you'll likely have to install it near a window or in the corner of your house. Also, the hardware supports handovers from the femtocell back to the main cellular network, but calls initiated outside of femtocell coverage can never migrate or hand-on to the femtocell. Range is advertised as being 5000 square feet, and the hardware is portable; you can take it on trips or to different places so long as you register the location online. You can also sell the device to someone else - it isn't forever locked to one AT&T account. AT&T stipulates that a 1.5 Mbps downstream, 256 Kbps upstream internet connection is required.
Recap: What's a Femtocell? Unboxing a Cell Tower
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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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