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Computerized Investing > January 11, 2014
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by Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

$150-$200+ (additional $19.99/mo. for unlimited MicroCell calling)

Boost your cell reception in your home.

If you are a follower of my Twitter feed, you know about my love-hate relationship with AT&T, my mobile carrier. As I live on the north side of Chicago, I would expect to have reasonably good cellular reception compared to what I get when I visit my old stomping grounds in the “thumb” of Michigan. Surprisingly, this isn’t always the case. During my first summer in my new condo, five years ago, I began noticing a significant drop-off in reception on those days the Cubs were in town (I am just a 10-minute walk north of Wrigley field). I heard rumors that mobile cell towers had to be brought in on game days to relieve the overburdened cell network in the neighborhood, even though there are at least three cell towers in the area. Even on normal days, I experienced dropped calls and poor reception in my condo. After much complaining to AT&T, they suggested I try a MicroCell, which is basically a mini cellular tower extending your wireless network for improved cellular performance. As it turns out, according to one customer service rep I spoke with, there are dozens of MicroCells in use in my neighborhood. To me, that would seem to be a red flag for AT&T that something needs to be done to improve the cellular network in my area, but that’s a discussion for another time. While I was pleased that there was a potential solution to my cellular woes, I was less than thrilled to learn that it would cost me over $200 to overcome AT&T’s poor network quality. After some back and forth, I finally secured my MicroCell and have been using it for several months.

Technical Requirements

If you are suffering from poor cellular connectivity and are an AT&T wireless customer (the MicroCell is not compatible with other wireless systems), don’t rush out and buy your MicroCell before making sure you meet the technical requirements. First off, MicroCells aren’t available in all areas. You need to go to an AT&T store or the AT&T wireless website to see if the MicroCell is available in your area.

Beyond that, a MicroCell is basically Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) for your cell phone (think Vonage, etc.). This means you need a high-speed Internet connection of at least 1.5 Mbps downstream/256 Kbps upstream in order for the MicroCell to function. You can use any high-speed Internet service provider except for satellite, which is not supported.

Lastly, be aware that placing calls via the MicroCell will still count against your wireless minutes if you don’t have unlimited calling. You can sign up for unlimited calling over your MicroCell for $20 a month. In addition, usage generated by the MicroCell counts toward your wireless data plan usage.

Finally, you need to be able to place the MicroCell close to a window and, optimally, above basement level. For some, that may be an issue depending on where your high-speed modem or wireless router is situated in your home or business.

Out of the Box & Setup

The AT&T 3G MicroCell is roughly the size of my cable modem, measuring 8.5 inches by 6.3 inches by 4 inches (at the base) and weighing 1.13 pounds. Also in the box is a getting started guide and user manual, an Ethernet cable for connecting the MicroCell to your high-speed modem or wireless router, and an AC power adapter.

Setting up the MicroCell was very easy. I began by plugging my MicroCell into my wireless router and powering it up. When I picked up my MicroCell from an AT&T store, they activated the device for me, so all I had to do is wait roughly 90 minutes for the MicroCell to connect. You can also activate your MicroCell yourself online. When you activate the MicroCell, you provide the address where the MicroCell is being used, which is then sent to local emergency responders. If you ever move, be sure to update your address for E911 service.

Once the 3G light on the MicroCell is solid and green, the device has been configured and is working properly. On my iPhone 5 it displays “AT&T MicroCell” instead of “AT&T” as the network provider whenever I am connected.

You can have up to 10 AT&T mobile numbers associated with a MicroCell at the same time, and up to four mobile devices can be connected at once.

Performance

The purpose of the AT&T 3G MicroCell is to improve the cellular service in your home or office, and it definitely delivers as advertised. Even though its stated effective range is 40 feet, I find that I have improved cellular reception all throughout my duplex condo. I am most impressed with the “five bar” reception I get in my basement, where I spend the majority of my time. Call quality over the MicroCell has also improved significantly, to the point where calls sounds better connected to the MicroCell than when I am outside, even with full signal strength. In addition, I haven’t experienced any degradation of my home wireless network after connecting the MicroCell. After several months, my experience has been nothing but positive.

Overall

Since I got my AT&T 3G MicroCell, I haven’t had anything bad to say about AT&T on my Twitter account. This is probably what they were hoping for when they “gave” me the MicroCell (in the spirit of full disclosure). I purchased the MicroCell from an AT&T store and I received an equal credit on my cellular bill. The MicroCell cost $218.49, tax included. I was very adamant with AT&T that I wouldn’t be paying that kind of money to fix their poor network. Unless you are in an area where you are getting no cell signal at your home or business, I am not sure if the cost is worth it.

Based strictly on performance, I would recommend the AT&T 3G MicroCell to anyone with poor cellular reception. But to pay over $200, in my case, seems to add insult to injury. In the end, this is a judgment call you alone have to make. While poor, my cellular reception was still good enough that I wouldn’t have purchased the MicroCell outright.

Pros

  • Easy setup
  • “Five bar” signal strength where previous signal strength was almost non-existent

Cons

  • Additional $150 to $200+ cost to improve service you are already paying for
  • Calls placed over MicroCell still use plan minutes

AT&T 3G MicroCell

$150-$200+ (additional $19.99/mo. for unlimited MicroCell calling)

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA is a vice president and senior financial analyst at AAII and editor of Computerized Investing. Follow him on Twitter at @WayneTAAII.


Discussion

James Perot from MA posted 6 months ago:

Why don't you just use SKYPE to make calls it would be much cheaper.


John Fassett from mt posted 6 months ago:

Verizon offers a similar setup which is only for the Verizon network. I concur that having to pay for enhancement to service which you are already paying for is awful.


Duane Penzien from MI posted 6 months ago:

I live near the border with Canada. Cell phone capture by Canadian towers and subsequent roaming charges are a big issue with ATT in this area. Because of that, ATT will practically give you a microcell (mine cost me $0.99) to avoid the customer complaints. Good thing too - according to their coverage map, I should have "medium" strength signals at my house. Actual signal is usually 1-2 bars on my iPhone 4s.... Sadly, Verizon coverage here is even worse.

The microcell really helped - too bad the cell companies don't live up to their coverage claims.


Mike Wells from OK posted 6 months ago:

I sprung for the AT&T 3G Microcell about 2 weeks ago and just read this article today. My issue was that inside my house, none of the cell phones on my plan, including smartphones, was able to keep a conversation going without dropping or fading out a couple of times. The phones all worked fine once a person moved outside our home.

The setup was very easy. I have AT&T Uverse for internet and TV service. I added the Microcell to my home network and set it in the office window. It picks up a GPS signal as well as the network from what I understand. Anyway, I have full bars on all phones anywhere inside my home now and no more dropped calls or fading conversations. Having reliable conversations through all of my phones for everyone in the family was worth the additional one time purchase.


Bradley Lauderdale from WI posted 6 months ago:

I bought the Microcell 3 years ago when I first got iPhones (very poor signal in our house). At the time AT&T gave away the Microcell in return for signing up for unlimited minutes on it ($20/month) I could (and did) cancel that after 2 months and keep the tower.
The Microcell has been very reliable and all calls are clear; rare dropped calls (probably the other party). Around once every month or two my iPhone loses the Microcell connection, tries to use the regular cell signal, and I have to turn it off and back on to resynch.


tahoe2sea from NV posted 6 months ago:

Due to a poor reception in my area sprint gave me a mini tower at no cost


Vernon Roberts from FL posted 6 months ago:

For what it's worth - I have used a 3g mobi sprint modem for years and in various areas (motels) have had problem getting a signal. I live in a mobil home(metal - not good for mobil anykind).

Purchased a $39 passive external antena a couple of years ago (connected to modeum, and have had 4 bar reception ever since (motels and at home). Various varities of antenae and microcells avail from $40 to $800+ depending on what you want - check out the 3G store(http://www.3Gstore.com) -- excellent service and very helpful. Doesn't matter which carrier you use doesn't cost any additional from carrier or any fees to them.

Vernon


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