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AT&T’s 3G Band-Aid: Buy a mini cell tower

At what price connectivity? AT&T and its iPhone customers are finding that out.

By Karen Datko May 5, 2010 7:16PM

AT&T launched a new product to address the problem of users who can’t get good 3G iPhone reception at home: Shell out $150 for your own personal mini cell phone tower, known as the MicroCell.

 

The New York Times explains: “Minitowers, the size of a couple of decks of cards, act and look like Wi-Fi hot spots at cafes and redirect cell phone calls from congested cell towers to home Web connections.” (A good post at Voxilla explains how it works.)

 

How’s that plan going so far? Here are some of the complaints we found:

 

Why do I have to pay for this? “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,” wrote The Associated Press’ Rachel Metz. It would seem that providing reliable service would be included in the base price.

Why is there a monthly fee? If you don’t already have unlimited minutes and you don’t pay $20 a month to AT&T for unlimited calling via the device, your minutes of minitower-enabled phone time will count against your cell plan, even though that talk is delivered by your Internet service provider -- not AT&T. "That just doesn’t seem fair," Metz said. We agree.

 

Actually, the pricing may not be as bad as it looks. If you order the $20-a-month unlimited MicroCell calling plan, your baby tower is only $50 after rebate. If you have AT&T broadband, that’s another $50 off. “If you complain loudly enough to the right rep, you might be able to snag one for free,” Gizmodo said.

 

Only 10 registered AT&T numbers can use your tower. So if someone drops by whose 3G phone is not on your list, they can’t enjoy the service.

 

Metz, a technology reporter, tried the MicroCell out. Among her findings:

  • Even though service from the MicroCell is supposed to seamlessly transfer to the AT&T wireless network after you leave its coverage area -- 40 feet in any direction -- Metz experienced some dropped calls at that point.
  • If you begin a call outside the MicroCell’s range, your call will not transition from AT&T’s coverage to the minitower.
  • Also, she said:
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.

In all fairness, other wireless companies sell minitowers to improve reception. (For more on Verizon’s version, read this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.) But the AT&T device seems to provoke more comment because of notorious 3G dead zones in major cities like San Francisco and New York -- and the fact that “you're helping AT&T relieve the strain on its cell towers,” as Metz put it, and you have to pay for that.

The blogger at Voxilla is willing to pay the price:

I ran into Mark, my neighbor who had posted the sign asking people to report the dead spots to AT&T. He was interested in the MicroCell, but balked at the cost, suggesting AT&T should give the MicroCell away when there is no service in an area they claim to cover.
Me? I’m grudgingly willing to pay $150 to keep my family connected.

Too cheap or frugal to sign up? This New York Times story offers several alternatives for improving your chances of getting a connection when your iPhone says you can't.

 

Related reading:

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