Yesterday I read on Mobile Crunch that the AT&T 3G MicroCell went on sale. I ran out and bought the last available one from the AT&T Store nearest me. I’ve tested it in two San Francisco homes and can report on how it works for me.
The theory is great. I pay AT&T an extra $150 to fix service that I’m already paying more than $100 a month for. They give me a cute little orange and white box by CISCO that connects to my broadband internet and makes a micro cell site out of my house. Voila, a little bubble of reliable service in the wasteland that is trying to make iPhone voice calls in San Francisco.
Or so I hoped.
I desperately need this. You see, I still want to be able to make and receive voice calls on my iPhone. AT&T has done everything possible ton convince me that it isn’t actually necessary. I live in San Francisco, near 16th and Harrison. Repeated long conversations with AT&T support about my inability to use my phone as a phone on their network have resulted in a little more understanding, but no better service. While I have great signal from multiple nearby towers, they are so congested that while standing in one place my phone switches constantly between Edge and 3G, and goes everywhere between one bar and five. My phone frequently doesn’t ring at all when someone calls, and often drops if I do manage to get connected. Using data works less well than voice, but it’s not as disruptive when it drops out for a minute. Still, I love my iPhone, haven’t been able to make the switch to Android on T-Mobile stick, so I stay connected to WiFi whenever I can and try to text instead of using voice. Thus, when I heard the Micro Cell was on sale, I made some calls and braved a rainstorm to grab one immediately.
Buying the MicroCell was easy, and they helped me log in to my AT&T account from a store computer. Besides entering the device serial number and address where it will be installed (necessary for 911 service), you have to program the AT&T numbers that will be allowed use the cell site (up to 10, but only 4 simultaneous). Instead I wish there were an option to let anyone near my house could use AT&T to make and receive calls.
I took the box home and plugged it in, where it took nearly an hour online before it was ready to use. The manual tells you to expect this delay while it gets a good GPS fix (again, for 911) and configures something for their network.
Once the light stopped flashing, I was disappointed that my phone phone’s display hadn’t changed from “AT&T” to “AT&T M-Cell.”
I looked through the manual. I turned the phone on and off. I thought about it for a while. I went to settings on my iPhone and re-enabled “3G.” AT&T support tells you to turn it off if you have problems with dropped calls. Apparently, switching from 3g to Edge and back is one of the things the iPhone does poorly, and it’s a place where you’re likely to drop a call. One less thing to switch means one less thing to go wrong.
Having made that switch, my phone’s display changed. Yay! I was now connected to “AT&T M-Cell.”
I immediately made a call that dropped. I had switched back to “AT&T” while walking around my house.
Disappointed, I re-read the directions and moved the Micro Cell further from my router/wifi, hopeful that this would keep me better connected to the working cell. It worked a little better, but I could still drop my micro cell for the outside towers when inside my home and well within 50 feet of the Micro Cell.
I now understood that your phone tries to always pick the strongest network signal. As soon as you are far enough from the MicroCell that an outside tower presents a stronger signal, you switch. Worse, while you’re on a call, your phone won’t switch back to the MicroCell.
This may not sound like a big deal, but if so, that means you don’t understand the network problem in San Francisco. Poor signal strength is not usually the issue. From my home in particular, I should have fantastic coverage. Congestion and switching is the issue. So as a bunch of other folks use their iPhones constantly (especially as they move around while doing so), their demand for voice and data bandwidth means the load on the towers is continuously fluctuating. I don’t need a stronger signal, I need a signal that is always ready for my calls.
What I want is to be able to tell my phone to prioritize the M-Cell. Don’t be so ready to change over to the regular network. Be willing to drop a call first. I’d rather know that I’m likely to drop a call if I leave my house than to know that I’m going to keep dropping them while in my house.
Instead, I now have the same old problem at home, except my phone is now switching between more things than ever. I’m forced to be in 3G mode, so I get Edge/3G iPhone switching problems, and I switch back and forth between the MicroCell and the outside network.
So it sounds like the iPhone and MicroCell might work wonderfully at a location with poor reception, but less so at an urban site with great but congested reception.
Since I have a friend in San Francisco with exactly that situation, I decided to test that theory out. She has a topography problem at her house so that there is poor to no signal on any network (not just AT&T). I asked her if she wanted to try the MicroCell at her house, and she was excited for the chance. I’d already added her number to the configuration web page while at the AT&T store, so I grabbed the gear and drove it up to her house. I plugged it in and waited about 30 minutes before I saw “AT&T M-Cell” on my iPhone. But hers refused to connect. I fiddled for a while before I thought to check her 3G setting. Of course, she had it set to Edge-only to try to get more reliable (if slower) service from AT&T’s crappy overloaded San Francisco network.
That fixed it, and she immediately popped up on “AT&T M-Cell.” It worked much better at her house, having a better tendency to stay on, but it was still ridiculously easy to loose a call to “AT&T” network. Just stepping out onto the deck would do it. Despite the fact that it was almost certain you’d drop your call from out on the deck.
Did AT&T actually test these things in it’s worst problem area, San Francisco?
To be fair, I’ve had the box at two locations for less than 24 hours and haven’t yet made a support call. Perhaps the box would work better with more effort put into placement and more geeky understanding and tweeking.
Really, no one should have to do that.
Apparently, the MicroCell signal needs to be stronger, and there should be some way to set your phone to prefer it more strongly over other signals.
So far, It looks like the MicroCell has made using AT&Ts network in San Francisco more complicated and more expensive without making it more reliable.