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Guest post: Setting up an AT&T MicroCell with Murphy Mac

Editor's Note: We welcome guest poster Murphy Mac, a long-time friend of the site who shared with us his experience of setting up one of the new femtocell AT&T repeaters that promise to improve reception for well-heeled iPhone users... or will they?

Good times for Charlotte, North Carolina: First AT&T makes Charlotte one of six cities getting a 3G speed boost by the end of 2009. On the heels of that news comes the MicroCell, a device that facilitates AT&T 3G calls where coverage is weak or nonexistent.

How? The MicroCell acts like a miniature cell tower in your home or office. Your 3G phone connects to the MicroCell just like it's any other tower. Voice and messaging traffic is then relayed across your broadband Internet connection. Charlotte is the sole initial test market for AT&T's version of the device, though other carriers are distributing their femtocells more widely.

Here's the full breakdown on pricing:

Purchase Price: $150
Monthly Charge: None

Optional Unlimited Voice Minutes Plan while using MicroCell:

AT&T Customer with both AT&T landline and DSL: Free
Customers with AT&T Landline or DSL: $10 per month
All others: $20 per month

I installed a MicroCell for a friend the other day, and after one small hiccup it's running. But is it everything I hoped it would be?

Setup for the MicroCell is straightforward. Most users will probably connect it via Ethernet to their router, which is exactly what we did. Optionally, the device can be placed between the router and the modem, giving MicroCell traffic priority handling over other Internet connectivity. If you don't have a router, the MicroCell can be plugged directly into your broadband modem and your computer can be connected to the MicroCell.

The device also needs a GPS signal to function, so a view of the outside is necessary when setting it up. Wired AND near a window -- the double requirement could prove troublesome for some installations. It's not yet clear how often the unit needs to receive a GPS signal to keep working. Ours is sitting on a desk within six or seven feet of a window.

Before you get started with the setup, your MicroCell needs to be activated via the AT&T web site. Provide the serial number and some billing information and you're all set. There aren't many choices to make, so activation is simple. You can return to the interface later and add up to ten approved 3G devices. Four can be in use at one time.

Once the MicroCell is activated it can be connected using one of the configurations described above and powered up. Then it needs a little time to itself. The lights on the MicroCell will pass through different phases of flashing and not flashing and end up solid. According to AT&T, this initial config could take up to ninety minutes.

Once your lights go solid the MicroCell is ready for use... but our first unit never went solid. I spoke to an AT&T rep who seemed familiar with the device. He performed remote diagnostics and said the device had failed. The AT&T store exchanged it without any questions.

When your lights do go solid, you can start using your 3G phone. You'll see M-Cell at the top of the display, letting you know you're connected to the MicroCell. Calls can be handed off from your MicroCell to a regular tower, unless the signal outside your house is no better than inside.

Performance

Bargain-basement DSL might not be the best choice for the MicroCell. Web browsing while talking on the iPhone resulted in useless garbled audio. Without Internet use, voice quality was quite good. Not many calls have been made yet -- but one has already dropped. For a moment after the drop the iPhone displayed no bars but they quickly returned. Isolated anomaly? Hopefully.

AT&T suggests at least 1.5Mbps downstream and 256Kbps up, though they claim any broadband is adequate. The Lite DSL we're using delivers up to 1.5 Mbps up and 384 Kbps down. A recent speedtest resulted in slightly slower speeds. U-Verse would probably provide much better results.

Pros and Cons

So where does that leave us? On the down side we're out $150, because AT&T has substantial holes in its coverage. This is a part of Charlotte where it's more than reasonable to expect a good signal. Also on the downside, the MicroCell needs to be wired AND placed near a window. Maybe they'll add Wi-Fi in a future version.

The plus side is obvious: People with no bars at their home can now use an iPhone, if they want. AT&T set the monthly charge correctly at zero dollars; now they just need to slice the purchase price in half.

Another plus: The MicroCell is simple to set up, while still providing flexible connection options. It's the kind of device you shouldn't have to think about, and it seems AT&T got that right.

Finally, customers who have both AT&T DSL and an AT&T landline get unlimited minutes in exchange for their one-time $150. That's a decent deal.

Conclusion

If I couldn't get a signal at my house, I'd pay the $150 before I'd give up an iPhone. I believe that purchase price is a little high, but they can't make it free as some have demanded. The pricing provides great debate fuel, but AT&T needs to charge something to prevent wasteful consumption.

Hopefully the rest of you will have MicroCells available soon. I wonder if AT&T has any more surprises for Charlotte?



Editor's Note: We welcome guest poster Murphy Mac, a long-time friend of the site who shared with us his experience of setting up one of...