AT&T 3G MicroCell Review: Good Quality But Don’t Pay For It

AT&T offers a small base station calle a MicroCell, which is supposed to boost your network connection at your home. In testing, we found that the AT&T MicroCell is nice, but we wouldn’t pay for one.

When AT&T offered to give me a free 3G MicroCell, I took them up on the offer. It was part of an effort by AT&T to “reward” their loyal customers. When you read that assume it means a desire to keep loyal customers from jumping ship to Verizon. The timing of their offer leads me to this conclusion since it came at the same time Verizon began offering the iPhone 4.



The letter AT&T sent me offering a free 3G MicroCell for my "loyalty"

The 3G MicroCell is a device that hooks up to your own broadband connection and uses your network to give you very good call quality at home. Essentially, AT&T was fixing its own poor call quality by using your Internet connection and then charging you for the privilege. We’ve heard reports that they won’t charge you if you complain loud enough about your signal quality in your home. But that is not guaranteed. I didn’t have to pay because they wanted to keep my four-iPhone contract.

AT&T 3G MicroCell

AT&T MicroCell Setup:

Setup is simple enough. The steps are as follows:

  1. Go to the AT&T 3G MicroCell Activation site:
  2. Turn off your broadband modem and router (or just modem if you don’t use a router).
  3. Connect included Ethernet cable to Ethernet port on the MicroCell (yellow port in picture below).
  4. Connect the other end of the cable to your router.
  5. Plug in and/or turn on the broadband modem first.
  6. Plug in and/or turn on the router second, if you have one.
  7. Plug in the MicroCell last, which turns it on.
  8. Wait at least 90 minutes or until you get a text message from AT&T saying that you are activated.
AT&T 3G MicroCell Hookup

For owners of a router, just plug in the provided Ethernet cable

Our text message came about 40 minutes after we hooked everything up. If you don’t use a router between your broadband modem and your computer, then we suggest you get one before hooking this up. It is much simpler and actually safer thanks to features in the router that filter out harmful Internet connections, like a firewall does. The feature is called NAT. You don’t have to get a router. If you choose not to, then do step #1 above and then follow these steps below:

  1. Unplug the broadband router and make sure the computer is shut down (not asleep or hibernating but shut down).
  2. Disconnect the computer from the modem by unplugging the cable from the modem first.
  3. Attach the unplugged cable to the port labelled Computer on the MicroCell (the black port in picture above).
  4. Connect the provided Ethernet cable to the port labelled Ethernet on the back of the MicroCell (yellow port in picture above).
  5. Plug the other end of the provided cable into the Ethernet port on your broadband modem.
  6. Turn on the modem back on and wait till the lights are on.
  7. Turn on the MicroCell by connecting the power cable.

You will know that the MicroCell is turned on and waiting for AT&T to activate it because the top two lights will be turned on. They represent Power and Ethernet. If you hooked up to a computer instead of a router, then the fourth light down, which looks like a computer, will be either solid green or flashing green if data is being sent across the MicroCell to/from the computer. When the MicroCell is fully activated by AT&T the bottom light that looks like cell phone signal quality bars will be solid green.

AT&T MicroCell Review:

The AT&T 3G MicroCell is simple to set up. The included documentation is easy to follow and has plenty of information if you get into trouble. For us, activation worked just as it was described the first time. It took less than the 90 minutes the manual claims it takes for AT&T to recognize the MicroCell and activate it on their network. So as tech gadget setups go, this one was one of the easiest we’ve done.

iPad/iPhones Show M-Cell

iPad/iPhones Show M-Cell when connected

Our four cell phones and one 3G iPad 2 have full signal strength (see image to the right). In the indicator icons for signal strength of both the iPad and iPhone, instead of just cell bars like a normal phone it says “M-Cell 3G” to show that you are hooked up through the MicroCell. We haven’t noticed any signal problems with the phone or the iPad 2. Our home Internet signal was not affected while using the cell phones either. So the AT&T 3G MicroCell works as designed. The call quality has been great in the limited testing we’ve done so far.

But is it worth whatever you would have to pay if you didn’t get the MicroCell for free from AT&T like we did? For me the answer is a big, “NO!” AT&T tries to up-sell you on getting unlimited calling while using the 3G MicroCell. But they charge an extra $19.95 for the service. That is absolutely ridiculous when you are the one providing the bandwidth for the calls through your own Internet broadband service.

The only way I would ever pay for this is if my home area had horrible 3G service and AT&T did nothing about it. Then I would still not add the unlimited calling unless I was also getting rid of my home telephone service. In that case $20 extra a month on my AT&T bill might save me money. But even then the principal of paying AT&T for something I am actually providing myself just irks me. I’d really have to NEED it before doing so!

3G MicroCell

We don't think you should have to pay to fix AT&T's network issues

Our recommendation regarding the AT&T 3G MicroCell is don’t bother, unless they give you one for free. If they do, don’t add the unlimited calling for $20/month unless you plan to get rid of your home phone and this saves you money. Even at that, I think I would call AT&T first and see if complaining loudly would get them to offer the monthly unlimited plan for free or a reduced rate. It’s unlikely they will, but give it a try. In short, we don’t think customers should ever have to pay to fix a company’s poor service quality!