AT&T's Femtocell

If you're already familiar with the femtocell offerings from Sprint and Verizon, you'll find the AT&T MicroCell is much the same. It's the same premise - calls and data from phones you specify are routed over your own internet connection. Except for one small distinction - AT&T's offers 3G HSPA/UMTS data up to 3.6 Mbits/s alongside voice, where the Sprint Airave and Verizon Network Extender offer 2.5G 1xRTT CDMA2000 data at 144 Kbits/s alongside voice. Of course, that means for the AT&T MicroCell to be useful, you'll need a 3G phone; the older GSM/EDGE only iPhone 2G won't see any benefit from AT&T's femtocell. 
 
It's interesting to note that virtually all of the major carriers in the USA now offer femtocells or similar means of expanding coverage. T-Mobile is the notable exception, which foregos a femtocell in favor of Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) - a 3GPP standard that allows the same cellular data to be sent over any IP network, most commonly over WiFi. Let's compare the offerings from all the major providers:
 
Carrier AT&T Verizon Sprint T-Mobile
Solution Femtocell - "3G MicroCell" Femtocell - "Network Extender" Femtocell - "Airave" UMA - "HotSpot@Home"
Branding Cisco Samsung Samsung NA
Technology 3G UMTS/HSPA for voice and data 2.5G CDMA 2000 1xRTT 2.5G CDMA 2000 1xRTT UMA voice over WiFi
Simultaneous Calls 4 Simultaneous 3 Simultaneous 3 Simultaneous NA
Standby Approved Callers 10 100 50 NA
Data Bitrate 3.6 megabits/s (HSDPA 3.6) 144 kilobits/s 144 kilobits/s NA
GPS Fix Required Yes Yes Yes NA
Upfront Cost $150.00 or $50 with $100 rebate and $20/month unlimited calling plan $249.99 $99.99 Wireless AP Cost
Hand-On/Hand-Off No/Yes No/Yes No/Yes Inter AP Handover/Yes
Coverage 5000 square feet 5000 square feet 5000 square feet WiFi AP range
Add Ons

$20/month unlimited calling

$10/month with AT&T DSL

$0 with AT&T landline

None

$5/month required 

$10/month unlimited calling - 1 line

$20/month unlimited calling - multi line

$10/month unlimited calling
 
While Sprint and Verizon are offering virtually the same Samsung-branded product, AT&T's MicroCell is a new femtocell bearing dominant Cisco branding. The same caveats apply here: the device needs to be able to get GPS fix, meaning you'll likely have to install it near a window or in the corner of your house. Also, the hardware supports handovers from the femtocell back to the main cellular network, but calls initiated outside of femtocell coverage can never migrate or hand-on to the femtocell. Range is advertised as being 5000 square feet, and the hardware is portable; you can take it on trips or to different places so long as you register the location online. You can also sell the device to someone else - it isn't forever locked to one AT&T account. AT&T stipulates that a 1.5 Mbps downstream, 256 Kbps upstream internet connection is required.
Recap: What's a Femtocell? Unboxing a Cell Tower
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  • leexgx - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    the UMA thing looks good idea, seems Way more piratical then these base stations ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generic_Access_Networ... ) only ever seen it on blackberry phones thought, only issue i could see with them is if it doe snot work with the wireless router correctly or intermittently out of range of router Reply
  • julioromano - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    Very nice and geeky review.
    Thanks for all the infos!
    Reply
  • Simozene - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    1. These units need to be very cheap or free for consumers.
    2. Any minutes or data usage that is routed over this instead of AT&Ts regular network should not be counted towards the limits on your data plan. It's not their network so you should not have to pay for using it.

    If those two conditions are met I can see how this could be a very useful product.
    Reply
  • sxr7171 - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    But it's not. It can't even hand off properly. Reply
  • Chrisg331 - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    1st off, great article. Good methodology as well. Will you be able to test different handsets (Primarily different chipsets/antenna designs to eliminate bias on the dropped calls), possibly test a repeater (as mentioned before) and possibly test data usage pattern(s) for those that may be bandwidth capped on their broadband? Great job. Could really be useful to those looking to ditch landlines. Reply
  • GregHH - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    In your haste to slam AT&T you neglect to notice that the other cell carriers offer the same type of device. That implies their coverage must not be perfect and all encompassing. Everyone seems to think cell coverage should be ubiquitous whether in a metro area or in the wilderness. I feel good that my area finally got 3G coverage in December of 2010. Reply
  • JKflipflop98 - Saturday, April 3, 2010 - link

    So, we're in the future looking back on the past then? Or we're in the past looking towards the current? Oh God, my head's going to explode. Reply
  • ivwshane - Friday, April 2, 2010 - link

    There is no required monthly cost. Buy just the microcell and use your existing minutes and data plan. Buy a microcell with a $20 feature and you can have unlimited minutes while using it and you also get a $100 rebate.

    No one is forcing anyone to buy these, at&t is simply giving it's users a choice, if you want to improve your in home coverage then buy one, otherwise don't.
    Reply
  • mikeshady - Saturday, April 3, 2010 - link

    So if I understand it correctly the price,$20/month unlimited calling

    $10/month with AT&T DSL

    $0 with AT&T landline.
    Will i be able to use it for the unlimited free since i have att landline
    Reply
  • mrSHEiK124 - Tuesday, April 6, 2010 - link

    Those failed handover videos; that happens ALL OF THE TIME on at&t in the Tampa, FL area. If you're on a highway or main-road and venture off into the boonies, as you get booted off 3G all you can hear is distortion (the handover is successful and the call doesn't drop, but good luck continuing the phone call...) and weird audio artifacts. at&t...more bars in more places. Reply

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