AT&T 3G MicroCell Gadget: iPhone Call Booster Falls Flat

AT&T's $150 3G MicroCell is designed to improve connections and end those pesky dropped iPhone calls. But CIO.com's Bill Snyder tries it out with his iPhone 3GS in San Francisco and walks away sorely disappointed.

I was a happy AT&T customer last week—for about an hour. Now, it's back to frustration and anger.

[ See CIO.com's recent article, My AT&T Customer Service Nightmare. ]

I spent $150 on a product called the AT&T 3G MicroCell. By handing off cell phone calls to the broadband network, the MicroCell is supposed to radically improve voice connectivity in the homes and offices of customers who frequently suffer dropped cellular calls and crummy connections. And when it works, it works well.

Unfortunately, it often doesn't, in my experience. The connection between my iPhone 3GS and the MicroCell drops randomly between calls, forcing me to power cycle the handset to restore it, rendering the device much less useful.

How it Works

Simply put, the MicroCell converts a cell phone call to a VOIP (voice over IP) call. It plugs into a broadband router or modem via an Ethernet cable, and sends the voice call to a handset using a 3G connection.

When it works, it works really well. Without the MicroCell I often have only a bar or two, sometimes none, on my iPhone. With it, I have four or five bars, and the call quality, while not perfect, is greatly improved.

Setting it up was a snap. There's no software to install, no configurations. Simply go online to register the devices, plug it in, put it near a window (it needs GPS to comply with 911 requirements), and wait an hour or so. When it's ready, the little AT&T logo in the upper left-hand corner of the screen will read "AT&T M-Cell."

In its simplicity of setup, the MicroCell reminds me of Cisco's Valet router, which I reviewed favorably a few months ago. Come to think of it, the MicroCell is also made by Cisco, a company that appears to understand the need for simple, consumer-friendly products.

Pricing works like this: The device costs $150, unless you buy dedicated M-cell minutes ($20 a month) which entitles you to a price break. That makes sense if you typically use up your allotment of voice minutes; I don't, so I didn't bother. Voice data moved via the MicroCell does not count against your data plan.

You can register nine other phones to use the MicroCell, though only four people can actually be on it at the same time. If you move, or want to take it with you to a vacation home, simply register the device at the new location. Obviously, you've got to have a broadband connection for the MicroCell to work, and any phone that uses the MicroCell must be an AT&T 3G device.

A Big Problem

Trouble is, I never got consistent results from the device, due to the fact that the connection between my iPhone 3GS and the MicroCell kept dropping randomly between calls, forcing me to power cycle the handset.

After a lot of time working with three levels of AT&T customer support, I was finally told that I'm "in a poor RF environment." Translation: It doesn't work and we probably can't fix it. It turns out that I'm not alone. Despite some fairly positive reviews, all it takes is a quick search of blogs (here's one) and support forums to find AT&T MicroCell customers, particularly iPhone 4 owners, with similar or worse problems. Other users say it drops during calls.

One AT&T technical support guy with whom I spoke claimed that there is a known software issue involving the operating system of all generations of the iPhone, and that he and his colleagues are waiting for Apple to fix it with a patch. The company denies that, and there's no way for me to verify his claim.

But there's no denying that AT&T's network is badly strained by smartphone use; selling the MicroCell is an implicit admission that there's no real fix in sight, despite the company's refrain that it is spending billions of dollars to boost capacity nationally and in San Francisco, where I live.

AT&T's Network Expansion Plans

To be fair, other wireless companies also sell similar microcell devices. And AT&T says this about its expansion plans: "From 2007 through 2009, AT&T's total capital investment in its statewide California wireless and wireline networks was nearly $7.3 billion, including nearly 200 new cell cites added in 2009."

"We plan to add more than 200 cell sites this year. And right now, we are in the process of doubled the amount of capacity of our San Francisco wireless network over the past year—and have hundreds of network enhancement projects currently underway in San Francisco."

That's nice to hear, but it isn't doing a lot of us much good, at least not yet. What's more, the idea of paying an extra $150 for a product that will make another product work the way it's supposed to in the first place, is really strange. How about selling products and services that just work?

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net

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