Unless you've been living under a rock the past couple years, you've probably heard at least something about the state of AT&T's 3G HSPA coverage in the United States. The sad reality is that dead zones exist across virtually every carrier and in every major locale. Until recently however, if one of those dead zones was your place of residence or workplace, you were either stuck paying for a network you couldn't use, or left shopping for another carrier. Bad coverage at home or work - where customers can potentially spend 70% of their time - isn't just frustrating, it's experience-killing. Mix in device-carrier exclusivity, and you can see how frustration can mount rapidly.
Instead of being forced to switch, carriers are hoping that users will improve coverage at their homes and small offices with femtocells. Virtually all the major carriers are betting heavily on femtocells to at least partly solve network woes - and at the same time save them billions of dollars on network buildout costs. It's a controversial move that's win-win for the carriers - users improve coverage where it matters to them on their own dime, and keep paying carriers every month for their electronic obsession. In short, they're betting that femtocells can both solve challenging coverage issues indoors and simultaneously reduce churn. 
Verizon and Sprint already have finished rolling out their own femtocell offerings, and AT&T is joining the fray with a nationwide deployment of their own starting mid April and lasting several months. Although mid April is when the nationwide rollout begins, there are a number of trial markets where the AT&T MicroCell is already deployed, including Arizona, where it launched Sunday March 21st. I rushed to the store the following Monday, and have been testing, hammering, and picking it apart ever since. AT&T's femtocell is far from perfect, but if your only other option is no coverage at all, it'll save you a lot of frustration.
Network Recap
Let's briefly go over the network topology itself and understand where AT&T's "Microcell" fits in:
Right off the bat, we can see that AT&T's "MicroCell" branding is actually a misnomer - it's really a femtocell. If we're being really anal about our SI prefixes, "micro" could lead you to believe that the device sits somewhere between macrocells (carrier-installed "Node B" UMTS base transceiver stations) and picocells (smaller commercial repeaters). It's an important distinction if we're to really understand where this device really fits in relation to other cellular network hardware. 
For some time now, AT&T has been quietly installing picocells in Apple stores across the country - they're Nokia branded boxes about 3 feet tall, a foot wide and a foot deep mounted out of sight for improving coverage where it matters. I'm told that a number of Apple store employees have affectionately nicknamed these "cancer boxes." If you look in the illustration above, that description almost matches the picocell shown in the bottom right of the center frame. It's important to note that AT&T's commercial MicroCell product isn't this. Building on thinkfemtocell's table here, I've put together a rough comparison:
Property Macrocell Picocell Femtocell
Installation Carrier Carrier Customer
Backhaul Carrier Carrier Customer
Frequency Planning Carrier Carrier At activation
Site Planning Carrier Carrier Customer
Range Several Blocks - Kilometers Malls, Stores, Businesses - 10k feet or more Homes, Small Offices - 5k feet or less
Devices Allowed All Carrier Approved All Carrier Approved Customer Approved
While Node B antennas and picocells come with considerable setup overhead for the carriers, femtocells are entirely the consumer's responsibility - partly why the carriers love them. There's significantly less configuration that the carrier has to do; almost everything really critical happens during the activation process at power up. But we'll get into that later. 
AT&T's Femtocell: Enter the 3G MicroCell
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  • atiller - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the excellent and detailed report. One comment - your view of picocells is rather out of date. Just like femtocells, today's picocells use IP backhaul and can be installed without any specialist skills. Some people call them 'enterprise femtocells', but they have a larger capacity and range than a femto.
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    Awesome tip, thanks, I definitely didn't know about these. Do you know what kind of carrier interaction is required for installing one of those? I mean, are they carrier agnostic, some common brand, and can anyone just buy them?

    I think there's definitely a market for malls and large shopping centers that want to improve coverage indoors - it seems to be a systemic problems for large buildings with high population density inside.

    -Brian Klug
  • Paulman - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    Except that I was reading an 4/1/2010 post on a friend's blog which made me wonder when the tech sites would start posting their crazy stories, and then I realized... wait a second...

    Before realizing this, I had read up to page 4 (Inside the Networking), at which point I was like, "I'm done with this article - I was just really curious to see if this was a 3G signal repeater, or if it got the data through a broadband connection and then just broadcast it locally over 3G". Lol.
  • TGressus - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    ...by failed handovers on AT&T.

    In southern California we as a community drive a lot (serious understatement), and many careers involve driving throughout the work day. Certain devices and occupations have moved my colleagues and family to AT&T at times, including the present. Everyone I know is regularly affected by the worst case handover scenarios you were surprised about in your article.

    It so predominant that I estimate 1/4 of my calls with AT&T I answer, "sorry, dropped call" rather than, "hello". It is the consensus of the mobile professionals with whom I interact through AT&T that one can not afford to make important phone calls on the road. I know that must seem like the most obvious statement ever, but try and empathize here; the nature of many businesses in massive urban sprawl lends itself to perpetual mobile telephony.

    People regularly attribute these issues to the coverage maps and, more recently, smart-phone burden. I'm no cellular techncian, but I suspect it's something more fundamental with GSM and/or AT&T technology. I'm not surprised you noticed this issue. In fact, I'm surprised you are surprised.
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    I can't speak for the load in that area, but migrating calls and handing them over if the adjacent cell sites are overloaded is generally what causes soft handovers to fail. So imagine that you're on a node, being serviced perfectly fine, but migrate (while driving, say) into an adjacent cell that's completely overtaxed. The phone will try to migrate its session, but if it's so overloaded that it can't, the call will fail.

    It's a sad state of things, but that's probably what's going on if you see that you have good signal but still encounter problems. In fact, I'd say if you don't hear distortion or blocking, but rather just have the call fail (and you're moving) this is probably the case. Of course, that market is one that AT&T is particularly stressed about and focusing on now, hopefully it improves.

    Both CDMA2000, GSM, and UMTS are equally robust in the soft handover arena, and it *usually* works flawlessly - this is a technology that's rolled out pretty much everywhere. The technology is robust, but it's entirely carriers prerogative to install it properly and watch out for these load issues. Nothing is going to overcome the laws of physics. ;)

    Brian Klug
  • slyck - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    Comments so far are right on. This should be a choice of last resort only for those who are connected to their cell number. If you need internet to make your call there is always VOIP which costs far, far less.
  • sxr7171 - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    Firstly pardon my language here. But this is bullshit.

    These stupid wireless carriers have a lot of nerve trying to extend their wireless coverage off of the customer's dime. On top of the ridiculous prices they charge for voice and data and most importantly: SMS. They have a lot of nerve asking customers to pay for the device and to pay for calls on it.

    The only advantage this has over a VOIP solution is basically seamless hand-offs - WHICH THIS CRAP PRODUCT DOES NOT DO.

    For GSM users this functionality was built into the standard and has been around for years and was mentioned in the article: SIP. T-mobile uses it but they restrict the devices.

    SIP is a feature built into many open unlocked phones like Symbian phones from Nokia and others, but our US carriers don't like such open phones so they would never allow a carrier sponsored phone to have the SIP software intact in the FW/OS. The whole technology was designed around having a choice of cell phone provider and SIP provider - you know choice as in the kind that creates competition. But our carriers will never allow that, and our consumers will always get sucked into carrier contracts and locked phones. This sort of thing is what makes it impossible to launch a phone or technology without the carrier's blessing and it is what makes us indentured to carriers.

    That iPhone is not $200 always remember the $1680 of overpriced service that is part of it. An unlocked iPhone costs $999. Think about why that is. It's because with the carriers control the device prices since they control who can buy it and what services must be purchased and how much that service costs. Will wireless ever be a free market in the US?
  • HotFoot - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    Have to agree with you. This is just silly.

    Where I live, there are two good solutions for the problem this device/service is trying to solve.

    1) Rogers has wifi capable cell phones that will switch to using your home 802.11 (or other hotspots) for making calls. When you're on wifi with these phones, you get different rates for calls much more in line with VoIP.

    2) Smart phone that will Skype over wifi. I pay $15/mo for my cell phone service plus another $3 to Skype for unlimited calling in North America. That's $18/mo, no contracts. I did pay $600 for my N900, so if that lasts me 3 years add another $18/mo to the total so I pay $36/mo to have basic cell phone service while I'm out and about and unlimited calling while at home, work, or coffee shop/anywhere there's free wifi.

    Anyone feeling like this AT&T offer is a load of steaming crap in comparison?
  • sxr7171 - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    But the 2 are open technologies that were supposed to enable seamless hand-offs and choice of service provider.
  • Wayne86 - Thursday, April 1, 2010 - link

    I was hoping this article was an April Fools joke. Alas, after Topekaing, it is not. :)

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