AT&T Wireless has admitted that its service is less than reliable in large swaths of urban areas such as New York City and San Francisco, and has promised infrastructure upgrades in those areas in order to address the problems.
When AT&T will get around to the service upgrades is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, AT&T customers who live or work within dead spots in those cities now have an effective, albeit pricey, hardware device — the $150 AT&T 3G Microcell — that alleviates a part of the problem.
I recently moved to the western side of the Oakland Bay Bridge and discovered that everything they say about AT&T’s mobile coverage in San Francisco is true.
My new apartment is in the center of the city, and the AT&T map shows coverage for my street. Don’t trust that map. Even before I unpacked the first cardboard box full of kitchen utensils I learned that my new home, with just about every modern amenity I could ever need, has absolutely no AT&T cell coverage.
My previous apartment, high above the Interstate, had a cell tower on the roof, and every cell phone I used always had five bars. I wasn’t ready to give up my near decade long landline-free existence.
Online, I found complaints from others in the neighborhood about the spotty coverage. One desperate neighbor even taped a sign to a light post asking iPhone users to use AT&T’s Mark the Spot app to mark the bad coverage in the area.
My situation was bad. My husband even dared to utter the "L" word — landline. I desperately got to work in search of another solution. Anything would do, I even researched building a repeater with high-gain antennas and amplifiers.
A femtocell is basically a mini-cell tower for your home or office, covering, AT&T claims, a 5,000 square foot area (or about 40 feet in any direction). The wireless carriers are under pressure from the FCC to actually provide coverage where their marketing materials claim to offer it. You have to buy the device and pay for the Internet access, but it’s better than no coverage while you wait for the wireless carrier and the FCC to finish fighting.
Off I went to the AT&T website all ready to sign-up and buy the Cisco-manufactured AT&T 3G MicroCell, only to find out that the San Francisco roll-out wouldn’t occur until mid-April, doh.
AT&T met it’s deadline. It’s now mid-April and when I learned that the MicroCell was available, I went to the closest AT&T store. The store manager said that every AT&T store in a 300 mile radius sold out on the first day. Luckily, I happened to show up on the day the second shipment arrived.
The AT&T store clerk offered to do an in-store activation of the AT&T 3G MicroCell. I declined so I could fully document the process. But if you want to save some time, when you go to the AT&T store, take your AT&T Wireless online password and let the store clerk activate the MicroCell for you. Then, when you take the MicroCell home and plug it in, you are good to go.
If you live in an AT&T mobile service area, have some kind of broadband internet access at home (a minimum of 1.5 Mbps downstream and 768 Kbps upstream), the AT&T 3G MicroCell packaging includes everything you need (the unit itself, power supply, an ethernet cable, "Getting Started Guide" and "User Manual").
If you like to tinker and choose to do the online activation yourself, the process is outlined clearly in the "Getting Started Guide". The typical user will not even need to open the "User Manual."
The Terms & Conditions and End User License Agreement are pretty standard: they won’t share personally identifiable information, the terms are governed by the State of California, location based services may not work correctly, you need to keep your E911 information up to date, etc. After agreeing to the Terms & Conditions and End User License Agreement, the online activation is a five step process:
- Device registration — link your MicroCell’s serial number to your AT&T Wireless account;
- Address verification — create a device nickname, the editable E911 & device location form is pre-populated with your email address and billing address;
- Approved user list — the form is pre-populated with the AT&T Wireless phones associated with your account, you can add up to 10 numbers;
- Review — review your account settings;
- Confirmation — you can print a copy of your settings
After completing the online activation, the "Getting Started Guide" explains how to connect your AT&T 3G MicroCell to the network.
- If your cable/DSL modem is connected directly to the computer, you use the MicroCell’s built in switch to connect to the modem and the computer.
- If you have a gateway or WiFi router, connect the MicroCell ethernet port to an open switch port.
- If you want to prioritize the MicroCell traffic, the "User Manual" lists another option. Use the built in switch and connect the MicroCell between the router and the cable/DSL modem.
AT&T recommends that the MicroCell be installed near a window because the built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver needs a signal for the unit to work. If you don’t want the AT&T 3G MicroCell by a window, the MicroCell features an external GPS antenna port (antenna sold separately).
My router is not near a window, but my AirPort Express connected TiVo is. Rather than dig around for a switch, I opted for the third setup option and used the MicroCell’s switch to insert the MicroCell between the TiVo and the AirPort Express. This configuration worked for testing purposes, but I did not try making a call while streaming an HD movie to the TiVo.
The documentation says that the startup process can take up to 90 minutes for the MicroCell to begin working as a cell site.
When the MicroCell boots for the first time, it connects over TLS to a server and downloads a fair amount of data. I recorded the traffic with Wireshark to see if the traffic from the MicroCell to AT&T is encrypted. Based on my experience with similar Cisco devices, the encrypted packets the MicroCell is downloading contain configuration information and a firmware update. After a few minutes, the MicroCell reboots.
When the MicroCell boots, the MicroCell tries to acquire a GPS signal and securely connect (TLS and IPSEC) with the AT&T wireless servers. Acquiring a GPS signal can take a few minutes, depending on the position of the satellites and the signal through your window.
I plugged the MicroCell in and took the dog for a walk. Within 20 minutes, I received a text message from AT&T saying that my AT&T 3G MicroCell was configured and working. When I got home, my phone immediately found the MicroCell and connected. The phone now reports AT&T M-Cell as the carrier.
I sent some test text messages and called my office number. The text messages went through right away and voice calls sound like the any other 3G call.
I ran into Mark, my neighbor who had posted the sign asking people to report the dead spots to AT&T. He was interested in the MicroCell, but balked at the cost, suggesting AT&T should give the MicroCell away when there is no service in an area they claim to cover.
Me? I’m grudgingly willing to pay $150 to keep my family connected.
And connected we are. Before connecting the AT&T 3G Microcell, we could not make or receive calls on our iPhones. We had no access to texting nor 3G email. Now, we both get a full five bars of connectivity. Inbound calls, outbound calls, SMS and 3G data are all fully enabled.
As a plus, we are also able to make VoIP calls on our iPhone.
Using the freely available web-based mobile VoIP RF.com service (disclaimer: I am a founder and actively involved in RF.com), I was able to make several overseas VoIP calls over my office Asterisk system. The RF.com web dialer loaded instantly on my iPhone, the exchange of signaling traffic between my phone and the RF media server was instantaneous, and the calls, even over 3G, were very clear.
The Microcell is a good first effort on the part of AT&T, a company not known for innovation. But there is still ample room for improvement.
A big improvement would be a public access option, or an easy way to make a MicroCell available to any user that happens to be in range. For example, a coffee shop located in a weak AT&T coverage area could install a single device allowing its customers access to their cell phones.
Also, eliminating the need for the Microcell to be located in an AT&T service area (verifiable via GPS) would be very useful for international travelers who wish to take their local cell phones with them overseas. This would be a good alternative to a WiFi VoIP solution by allowing a user to be reached on his or her cell number without incurring roaming charges. A hacker’s workaround to the limitation would be to spoof, or “meacon,” the GPS signal.
The AT&T 3G MicroCell is excellent for supplemental coverage in areas like San Francisco. But the device will really be helpful in rural areas, like Marquette, MI, where there is no 3G coverage. Hopefully, AT&T will continue their nation wide rollout.