SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. iPhone users have joked that Apple's gadget can do everything but make phone calls. The problem is partly due to congestion on AT&T's wireless network.
Now in some cities, AT&T is selling a way to fix the problem — a $150 mini cell tower for the home called the 3G MicroCell. The MicroCell routes calls over a high-speed Internet connection and gives iPhone owners — and anyone else with an AT&T "3G" phone — flawless reception at home. The problem is, unless you pay an extra fee each month, you'll still be using minutes from your cell phone plan to make calls that aren't really taxing AT&T's cellular network. That just doesn't seem fair.
My apartment was an ideal place to test the product, because my building is somehow marooned on a dead-zone island. Enter the MicroCell.
Despite looking like a giant Wi-Fi router, it is stylish with its white and gray sides and orange accents. Its two main sides are flanked by AT&T's signature five-bar cellular reception logo — a marking I found simultaneously comforting and mocking as it practically shouted, "Here comes great cell phone service; too bad you have to pay more for it!"
Easy to set up
Assuming you already have high-speed Internet service, the MicroCell is easy to set up. You register it on AT&T's MicroCell website using your cell phone account information.
You can add up to nine additional AT&T cell phone numbers that you want to be able to access it (although only four people can make calls through the MicroCell at the same time). Users of AT&T's prepaid GoPhone service should note that while you can use your phone with a MicroCell, you can't set up a MicroCell with a GoPhone account.
After the online setup, you connect the MicroCell to your modem or wireless router, turn everything off, turn it back on a minute later, and wait.
The waiting, as Tom Petty would say, is the hardest part. The MicroCell has four indicator lights — power, Ethernet, GPS and 3G — that must be shining an uninterrupted bright green for the product to work. It can take an hour and a half for these last two to stop blinking as the product sets itself up.
For me it took an hour. Then, suddenly, an iPhone switched from its shoddy one or two bars of AT&T network coverage to a glorious five bars and indicated that I was using the "AT&T M-Cell."
Range of about 40 feet
I took full advantage of the device's range, which is about 40 feet in any direction — long enough to reach outside my small apartment. Calls sounded very clear, with hardly any connection issues. However, for best results I had to stay stationary; walking around sometimes made the person on the other end sound tinny.
The MicroCell worked well for watching online videos and surfing the Web, giving the iPhone a heartier and more reliable data connection than it previously had in my apartment.
One promising feature of the MicroCell is its ability to automatically switch calls initiated through it to AT&T's local cell towers when you wander out of the box's range. Sometimes this worked for me, but several times it hung up on people. Unfortunately, the reverse doesn't work: If you're on the phone when you're coming home, the call isn't handed over to the MicroCell.
My phone didn't always get the hint that the MicroCell was near. A handful of times I reached to make a call and found myself back on the weak AT&T network. I could get the iPhone to switch to the MicroCell by powering it off and then back on, but that wasn't much fun.
Beyond the cost of the device, you'll need to agree to a monthly fee of $20 — or $10 for AT&T high-speed Internet customers — if you don't want minutes deducted from your cell phone plan when you use the MicroCell. That would be the case even if you leave your house mid-call and keep chatting on AT&T's network. A subscription also comes with a $100 mail-in rebate that effectively cuts the price of the device to $50.
Despite the allure of a suddenly strong reception, I couldn't shake the idea that buying the MicroCell and a corresponding subscription, or even just the MicroCell, means you're paying for the privilege of improving the service you already pay AT&T for every month. And you're helping AT&T relieve the strain on its cell towers.
Other wireless carriers sell similar devices for their networks that also drain minutes from a subscriber's monthly plan. Sprint's unit is a bit cheaper while Verizon Wireless' is more expensive, but there is no monthly fee and no option of tacking one on to get unlimited use.
I can imagine some scenarios where the MicroCell would be appropriate — homes in rural areas, small offices where a strong cell signal is paramount.
But generally, shouldn't your cell phone work adequately in major cities without a device like this? Asking customers to shell out to improve something they're already paying for is just macro unreasonable.
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