The House

Five Bars at Home with the AT&T 3G MicroCell

by Michael Alderete on 4/30/2010 · 2 comments

AT&T is the exclusive wireless provider for the Apple iPhone here in the United States, and has at least partially earned a reputation for providing poor wireless phone coverage. In my own travels, I’ve had great reception in Portland, Austin, Palm Springs, and Chicago, among other places, four or five bars, consistently. I don’t recall ever having poor 3G reception anywhere — except here in my home city of San Francisco.

Now, San Francisco presents some unique challenges, such has high-rises and famously steep hills. But solving those reasonably straightforward RF challenges is what AT&T gets paid the big bucks to do. After almost four years there has been some improvement, but reception is still a major issue, with some parts of SF being almost completely dead zones. (I believe this has more to do with the tinfoil hat crowd than AT&T’s lack of effort and investment, but that’s a post for another day.)

AT&T reception in our house, while not awful, has been spotty, and seems oddly worse since we gave up our land line in January. It has definitely been an issue, with dropped and “one-way” (you can hear someone but they can’t hear you, or vice versa) calls being a regular occurrence.

AT&T 3G MicroCellAT&T has a solution for that problem. It’s called the AT&T 3G MicroCell, which puts a mini cell phone tower called a “femtocell” in your house, and no less a personage than the NYTimes has written about it. Their first article, Bringing You a Signal You’re Already Paying For, is a bit snarky, but does a good job of covering the details of the technology, and why you might want it. Their second article, Dead Zone Doldrums Test Skills of iPhone Customers, is more pragmatic, focused on usable ways to improve your reception, including the MicroCell.

Ultimately, finding a usable solution is more productive than pointing fingers. While the 3G MicroCell does cost $150, there are no monthly fees, and I can attest to getting at least three, and mostly five bars everywhere in my ~1400 square foot house. The MicroCell hands off smoothly to a standard AT&T tower when I move to my back deck, where reception was already excellent. Call quality has been excellent. Once set up, there is nothing to do. It Just Works.

There were two tricks to getting the MicroCell working. The first was actually getting one. They are not yet available for ordering online, at least not in San Francisco. But, after reading a tweet that AT&T Wireless retail stores were selling them in Santa Rosa, I stopped by a store in downtown San Francisco. Yes, they had them in stock, and so did the second store I visited. So, if you want a MicroCell today, you may need to visit your nearest AT&T Wireless store. For me, this was only 10 minutes out of my way, not a big deal.

My second issue was activating the MicroCell. It needs to have a reliable two-way connection to the Internet. For you to receive calls, the AT&T network needs to be able to reach the MicroCell, that is, connect from the Internet to inside your home network. This is something that a good firewall will normally prevent. I assume that the MicroCell uses UPnP or NAT-PMP to attempt to automatically open appropriate holes for itself, but my decidedly non-standard firewall software and even more unusual hardware don’t support either. So, I had to put the MicroCell outside the firewall, which is easy enough if you have a simple home network…and a pain in the ass if you have a fully wired house. For most people, this won’t be an issue, but I would appreciate a way to manually configure my MicroCell, or at least the technical information to open the right holes. Currently AT&T wants the 3G MicroCell to be a black box that requires no direct configuration by the customer.

In the end, I’m pretty happy with the 3G MicroCell. It’s set up, it works as advertised, and I didn’t need to wait for AT&T to put a new cell tower nearer my house, or for Apple to launch a Verizon iPhone.

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Gone, baby, gone!

by Michael Alderete on 11/5/2007 · 6 comments

Free BeBoxes On Saturday I took 13 BeBoxes to the Vintage Computer Festival in Mountain View, with the intent of offering them to passers-by, getting them out of the house and into a good home.

I spent a bit of time creating a flyer to advertise them, and packed up a kit with stapler, tape, marker, etc., so that I could put them up in good places. Then I drove 45 minutes to the Computer History Museum, where the festival was taking place.

The second person who saw the flyer said, “OK, I’ll take them.” I hadn’t even posted it yet! After 10 minutes of transferring from my car to his truck, the BeBoxes had a new home, and better prospects for being refurbished and restored to their former, if not glory, at least functionality.

Rochelle hasn’t stopped smiling since I got back with an empty car. And I have to admit, with the CRAP efforts we’ve made in the last two months, it seems like we might recover the use of our third bedroom before the end of the year. That will make us both smile!

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Up and down, up and down…

by Michael Alderete on 4/18/2006 · 1 comment

That’s been my DSL connection over the last few weeks. And since I self-host this site, on a cheap PC sitting on a shelf, Aldoblog has been up and down, too. Very irritating.

The problem is the wiring. Our house is a 100+ year old Victorian, and all of our phone wiring (except for the actual phone jacks) is on the outside of the house. And it’s old, and it’s been abused, and so on. So with all the rain we’ve been having, apparently water is getting into the wiring.

We’ve had PacBell out, more than once, and about the only thing they’re consistent about is that it’s our problem, not theirs. Even thought it’s on the outside of the house, it’s “inside” wiring because it’s past the junction box, and so our responsibility.

Anyway, it’s sunny and working now, and it looks like we might be done with the rain for a while. In the meantime, I’m calling wiring contractors, because I can’t take it when we don’t have internet access. I must be a junkie…or then again, maybe I need to have internet access to, like, work and earn a living…

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The kitchen in August

by Michael Alderete on 8/19/2005 · 2 comments

It’s been quite a while since I posted photos of the kitchen progress. We basically came to a standstill two months ago, when we ran completely out of money to do more work. Fortunately, very nearly all of the work is done. Some painting touch-ups, painting the base board, and a couple of similarly little things. We’ll be getting them done in September.

It also took us forever to really finish bringing things back into the kitchen, and arranging them to our satisfaction. Two weeks ago we bought a new kitchen storage unit at IKEA, and that has made all the difference in being able to get things organized enough that we can work well in the new room.

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Keeping Up With The Jones Poverty Party

by Michael Alderete on 6/4/2005 · 0 comments

As usual, Rochelle’s invitation to a recent party is funny and worth preserving. In addition to Rochelle’s birthday, this was the “coming out” party for our new kitchen (even though it wasn’t quite finished). We do regret that we didn’t get to the grilled cheese sandwiches on the griddle, but at least we did make quesadillas.

Worst of all, we forgot to take any photos during the event, especially of people in the kitchen. We’ll just have to try harder (or drink less) next time.

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Quotation of the year candidate

by Michael Alderete on 5/27/2005

Regarding the budget overruns of the kitchen remodel:

“Yeah. We spent into the grocery money.”

“Worse. We spent into the booze money.”

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Watching paint dry

by Michael Alderete on 5/25/2005 · 10 comments

In the time since the prior photos were taken, the (old) kitchen sink and (new, temporary) cabinet were installed (and the dishwasher dragged into place), the ceiling, walls, and trim have been painted, the electricians returned to install all the outlets, switches, and lights — and our contractor left to go get married on the East Coast.

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Almost there…

by Michael Alderete on 5/19/2005 · 0 comments

We’re in the home stretch on the first phase of our kitchen remodel. The photos here were taken last week; I’ll be taking some more tomorrow when I can get back in with good light.

Here are the stove and refrigerator in their permanent spots. The walls have been primed and patched, but not yet painted. And we’re having a weird problem with the refrigerator’s rollers, where it’s tilting backwards. We’ve already begun lusting after a new fridge, with an icemaker. Plus the white fridge is going to look so icky in the new kitchen…

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Before and after

May 4, 2005

After posting the photo of scope creep, we kind of had a pause in progress, while we back-tracked on a few things. So we’re finally making progress again today. Here’s the before and after of the pantry doorway.

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Scope creep caught on film!

April 26, 2005

It’s not often you can snap a picture of scope creep, but I caught it this evening…

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Modern art, or vintage mess?

April 20, 2005

When we took out the kitchen sink cabinets, and the walls behind them, we found what our plumber called a “masterpiece of modern art.” But really, it was a baroque mess.

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Now it looks like progress!

April 17, 2005

So, at the end of the week, we’ve finished the electrical, including some in-wall speaker wire and coax, and one Cat-5 Ethernet line. Most of the walls and all of the ceiling are insulated. The ceiling is up. And something special is hidden inside it.

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