Make your own cell tower

As much as I enjoy my iPhone, like many others, I've found AT&T's coverage to be less than satisfying. While it certainly has gotten a bit better, the fact that I have dropped calls in my own home is an annoyance.

So I was excited when AT&T announced a home "microcell" device some time ago. This is a consumer version of the expensive in-building solutions cellular providers install in shopping malls, convention centers, offices, and stadiums to blanket the area with cellular coverage.

It took a while, but AT&T has finally rolled them out in my home area. At $150, it isn't cheap, but it does work. The device is only slightly larger than your typical home WiFi router. Included in the box is an ethernet cable, power supply, and instruction manual.

Each microcell has a unique serial number used to register it. Using a fairly easy tool on their website, I was prompted to enter the serial number and enter my home address where it would be located. AT&T needs to know the location of each device for E911 and regulatory purposes. I also had to authorize the cell phones that I wanted to be allowed to use my microcell. 

The microcell is then connected to my home router and power. AT&T recommends placing it near a window as it needs a GPS lock to work to verify its location.

It took some time to boot up. About 20 minutes later, I received a text message from AT&T indicating it was activated, and a few minutes later, my phone's signal indicator went from displaying "AT&T" to "AT&T M-Cell".

Call quality was great, about what you'd expect on a normal 5-bar cell phone call. I also authorized my Blackberry, and it connected right up.

I did have a few issues. My first activation attempt didn't work. The lights on the device came on, but neither of my phones would change to the "M-Cell" network. AT&T recommended deactivating the device via their website and then reactivating, but this ended up requiring a call to customer care and about a 24 hour wait for the call to be escalated to the proper engineer. Once I reactivated, though, it worked like a champ.

The other issue really comes down to cost. AT&T should be handing these out; even if only in response to a large number of dropped call reports. I shouldn't have had to invest more money to fix their network. Further, the backhaul for the calls is my own Internet connection, but AT&T still deducts minutes from my account (or text message credits) for calls I make while connected to my own microcell. For an additional $20/month, I can sign up for a plan with unlimited calling while connected to the microcell. The pricing is steep and doesn't earn AT&T any goodwill, but the bottom line is that the device works pretty well to improve coverage in areas with low or no AT&T signal.