Thursday, September 2, 2010

Breaking Bad: the AT&T MicroCell and Your Craptacular Mobile Signal Strength at Home - Initial Review

If you found this post, it probably means that you have poor cell coverage at home and you're wondering whether the AT&T 3G MicroCell can solve your problem. I've had the AT&T MicroCell running for several days now. While my time on calls using the 3G MicroCell is still somewhat limited, I wanted to share some operational experiences with you.

General Background
The 3G MicroCell has been offered by AT&T as a solution for improving your coverage in areas where the existing cell signal is week. Functioning like a wireless router, the device connects to your broadband connection and provides an access point for up to 10 AT&T phone lines. Note that these phone lines must be registered with AT&T, and it only works on 3G phones. Also, like a wireless router, it's signal radiates out from the unit and walls reduce the distance that the signal can go.

Set-Up and Configuration
As noted in my earlier post, set-up and configuration were fairly straightforward. You need to be able to log into your AT&T account on line to register the unit, and when you first set it up, it wants to be close to a window so that it can get a GPS signal. It uses GPS and a registered location for 911 tracking. My only comment on this is that I'm surprised by how long it takes for the unit to train.

Basic Performance
Once I activated the 3G MicroCell, I've been getting 4-5 bars throughout my home. The unit alerts you when you are connected to the MicroCell by changing the network display indicator on your phone. However, even with the unit centered inside my home, when I go outside, I find the signal falls off quickly.

I haven't dropped a call while talking on the 3G MicroCell when I've been in 'strong' coverage areas of my home, but I have experienced several calls where the call quality had issues. Basically, the call seems to experience some sort of packet drop -- like someone turned on a metronome and every click is a moment of silence. A couple of times, I've wound up redialing the person in an effort to correct the issue.

The place were the 3G MicroCell causes the biggest problems is when you get close to the edge of coverage. Theoretically, the MicroCell should shift your coverage over to the strongest available 3G cell signal (your local tower); however, if you have been on the 3G network for any length of time, you probably already know that switching networks is one of the times when calls frequently drop. And drop they do -- so far I've dropped nearly every call near the edge of the 3G MicroCell coverage. Of course, even if the switch between networks was seamless, you are probably still moving into an area with craptacular coverage, so you'd expect some issues.

Yesterday, I actually wound up unplugging the 3G MicroCell.  For whatever reason, yesterday my iPhone decided to stop receiving incoming calls -- this has happened to me before. Instead, I would simply get an alert that there was a new voice mail on my phone. After restarting my iPhone several times and wrestling with the same issue, I decided to unplug the 3G MicroCell.

Is the 3G MicroCell the Solution for You?
If you have really bad cell service in your home (0-2 bars), you might want to consider the 3G MicroCell. However, the decision may not be straightforward. Here are some guidelines that you might use to make your decision:
  • If you are in a location where the 3G MicroCell is all that stands between you and no coverage (like your cabin in the mountains), you may want to consider it. The device will create a cell signal. However, it definitely has issues with range and it's not clear how much bandwidth requires on your broadband connection. If you have multiple people using the 3G MicroCell at the same time, I don't know well it will perform.
  • If you are in a location where you have spotty coverage in your home and you can expect to be inside or within the 3G MicroCell coverage area for extended periods of time, you might want to consider it. The device would be a better supplemental solution if it didn't take so long to activate.
  • If you have spotty coverage but you frequently run errands while talking on the phone (going in and out of the coverage area), I wouldn't recommend the device unless you intend to plan periods of time when you don't leave the coverage area. I experienced too many call drops at the edge of the 3G MicroCell network to recommend it as a solution.
  • If you have 2 or more bars of coverage in the area around your home (inside will always be worse), I wouldn't recommend the 3G MicroCell. The dropped calls that you experience are inconvenient, but you'll probably experience more headaches with the device than without it.

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