Got Problems With AT&T Service? Cisco’s MicroCell Is the Solution

Product: 3G MicroCell by Cisco

Manufacturer: AT&T

Wired Rating: 7

As Ah-nuld would say, “Stop whining!”

AT&T, long the punch line of numerous jokes about poor cell service, is offering a $150 band-aid for wireless customers to mend their shoddy 3G reception. That help comes in the form of a plastic, orange-and-white hub called the 3G MicroCell.

Manufactured by Cisco, the MicroCell creates a tiny 3G data and voice bubble in your home. It sets up in a snap: Plug it in to your existing broadband network by Ethernet, log in to your AT&T wireless account, and follow the web instructions to activate the device. You can authorize up to 10 AT&T phone numbers (3G only, not EDGE) to work with the product.

After you set it up, try to macramé yourself a set of shorts or some other time-consuming task. The MicroCell takes roughly one hour to fully come online.

So what’s the anecdotal verdict? I tested the MicroCell in my San Francisco apartment located in the notoriously reception-deficient Mission district. Prior to installing the MicroCell, I had to stand by the front window just to make a phone call and was only able to chat for a few minutes before losing the connection.

The MicroCell remedied that problem: I can now traipse around my apartment placing or receiving calls and enjoy lengthy conversations without drops. Voice quality has also improved — no longer are conversations distorted by a cruddy connection.

The MicroCell also amplifies your data connection, but consider that benefit moot, because you need to have a broadband connection to use the product. That means you’ll be doing your data-heavy tasks (web browsing, downloading phone apps and games, etc.) over Wi-Fi from your base station instead, since that’s faster anyway.

The only reason you’d want an amplified 3G connection is if, say, you send a ton of MMS messages, because AT&T won’t let you do that over Wi-Fi. And even then, I can tell you the time it takes to send an MMS with the help of a MicroCell is hardly impressive. It still takes roughly 45 seconds for me to send an MMS of a photo snapped with my iPhone 3GS. (I would give you a comparison number with the MicroCell turned off, but I can’t, because I can’t send an MMS at all when the device is not turned on in my home.)

If you skew towards the loquacious end of the spectrum, there’s the option of paying a companion rate of $20 a month for unlimited phone calls, which gives you $100 off the MicroCell. This arrangement also enables folk on your family plan to make unlimited calls without sucking minutes from your monthly wireless voice pool.

With all that said, the part that will bug people the most is the price tag: AT&T service should work in your home without a $150 accessory, right? Fortunately this is a one-time price — no contract is required to use the MicroCell.

Money issues aside, let’s face it: Having a reliable cell phone connection is a big deal. Dropping calls or flat-out missing them can really make life suck. If you can’t stand waiting for AT&T to improve its 3G service, or for Verizon to deliver an iPhone, then it’s worth paying the price for the MicroCell.

That, or you could try giving hell to a customer-service rep until AT&T sends you one for free.

WIRED Urge to kill AT&T fading: Major signal boost in cell dead spots. Simple “set it and forget it” setup. Does not require contract commitment. No monthly fees. Design is so not garish.

TIRED Urge to kill AT&T rising: Costs about the same as an iPhone. Compatible only with 3G phones provided by AT&T (EDGE customers have issues too, y’know). Seriously, AT&T should offer this gratis.

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