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 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.