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Microcell gives new option to customers in areas where 3G voice coverage is poor

AT&T is notorious for poor service quality in some of its service areas. While poor reception might be forgivable in mostly rural areas where the environment makes cellular towers hard to install and cuts range, some of AT&T's highly publicized network issues are in major cities.

In September of 2009, an Apple Genius in a store in New York City famously told a customer that 30% dropped calls were normal. AT&T knows that reception can be an issue in some areas and is making efforts to fix the network. One of the ways that AT&T hopes to improve the network for customers is by getting users to adopt femcells.

The AT&T Microcell femtocell is now available to any AT&T customer. The Microcell takes the user's mobile phone call and routes it across their broadband network rather than over the AT&T wireless network. The catch with femtocells is that the customer has to purchase the hardware device and pay more each month to use it. This has made the devices unpopular with many consumers who feel that the femtocell makes them pay again for network coverage they are already paying for.

Another significant issue with the AT&T Microcell is that data usage on the 3G network conducted when connected to a Microcell will still count towards the monthly data use of the user. AT&T claims that this is because all 3G data eventually goes across the AT&T backend.

AT&T has also completed the transition of assets that it purchased from Alltel in 79 different service areas ranging across 18 states. The purchase of the assets cost AT&T $2.35 billion and was part of the approval Verizon received to purchase Alltel. Most of the new coverage is in rural areas where Alltel operated. Customers whose networks have transitioned to AT&T will not have to purchase a new device according to the company.

Update: Wednesday June 23, 2010 11:35 p.m.-

AT&T contacted us late today and chatted a bit about the Microcell.  Their spokesperson
gave this additional info on the product:

As background, a 3G Microcell functions as a miniature cell tower, and data transmitted using the Microcell uses our core wireless network just like a call placed while driving down the highway uses the core wireless network. The only difference is how that data or call gets there – via a MicroCell connected to a wired broadband connection instead of a cell tower. As a result, data and voice usage on a Microcell access point are billed according to the users’ plan. 
However for those users fearful about the data usage limitations mentioned, AT&T pointed out:
3G MicroCell is primarily intended to enhance the voice call quality experience in your home. While it can carry mobile data traffic, that’s not the primary solution it provides.

Microcells require you have a wired broadband connection and our surveys show that around 96% of our Microcell users have a Wi-Fi router, as well. Wi-Fi is the optimal solution for home mobile data use. We encourage people to take advantage of Wi-Fi capabilities. That’s why all of our smartphones include Wi-Fi radios, and usage on Wi-Fi doesn’t count against your mobile data usage bucket if you have one of our new data plans.

Editor's Note (Jason Mick)
AT&T has been getting a lot of flak for its voice network lately.  While this is largely fair, it should be noted that it has the nation's best data network
. Some publications, such as the The Consumerist have drummed up the Microcell/data plan story, but honestly this seems like a non-issue, considering that, like AT&T points out, you can just use Wi-Fi.  If voice coverage is poor in your area, but you want AT&T either for either the iPhone 4, its data network, or its strong international coverage, it seems foolish to avoid the Microcell for this practical non-issue.

It's also important to note that you can buy a Microcell without signing up for an additional plan.  The additional plan ($20/month) allows for unlimited voice, plus gives $100 off the Microcell itself.  AT&T's spokesperson says that families are one potential group that may benefit from this additional option.




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