Tech & The Web

Should It Really Be My Problem?


I stopped by my local AT&T store today to ask about the new iPhone 4G. I am not planning on buying one any time soon, but just wanted to find out when I’d be eligible to get one for the price I’d want to pay rather than the full price they’d want me to pay.

Fortunately for me and my finances, I won’t be eligible for the low price they’re advertising until January. It’s a cinch I’m not paying full price in the meantime.

Having gotten that out of the way, I came to the real reason I walked in: to find out why, all of a sudden, I was having such bad reception in my apartment when I used to have little problem making a call. I even pointed out that earlier this morning, after meeting my friend Andy for coffee, I was in a parking lot between a Panera Bread and a Starbucks, where there is AT&T Wifi, and that not only was I not able to connect to Wifi with my phone, but there was no 3G reception and zero bars: all I had was “No Service.”

That doesn’t cut the mustard for me.

The customer service rep told me that she’d initiate a trouble check for reception in my area. She said I’ll receive a text message to let me know that they’re working on it. So far, there’s no sign of that text, but then it may take until Monday for it to arrive.

She then offered me a product that could solve my problem: the “MicroCell.” She explained that it’s a miniature cell phone tower for inside the home that connects to your computer’s ethernet connection to give you up to four bars within the home.

It costs just $149, but then it’s yours. You can take it with you when you move, and you don’t have to pay a monthly service charge.

Then, she mentioned one more feature: for $20 a month, I can get the tower for just $49 and can make unlimited calls from within my home.

My suspicious mind — suspicious because of lots of past billing blunders from AT&T — immediately wondered how even a smartphone would be able to be smart enough to know if I’m in my home: what if I’m on the balcony? Does the phone know I’m outside but at home or does it think I’m no longer inside so I should be billed full price?

It turns out that the phone indicates whether it’s receiving a signal via the MicroCell or a normal outdoor cell tower. So you do know whether you’re calling on the MicroCell.

But that leaves me with a bigger point: if AT&T supposedly has the world’s fastest 3G network, but that network can’t even get into my house, then why do I have to pay $150 to get the level of service I ought to be getting for the not-so-low-priced fees I’m already paying every month?

I can’t control where AT&T places its towers, and there’s no information given when you buy a phone about whether you’ll be able to get a good signal where you live when you buy the phone. So no one knows for sure how good the reception is until you’ve already bought the phone and locked yourself into a 2-year contract, then get home to find out that simply walking from one room to the other will make your call get dropped like a hot rock.

Don’t get me wrong: I really like the iPhone. It does everything I need to do, the way I need it done, and it connects easily to my computer and instantly syncs with my calendar, contacts and iTunes. The only major issues I’ve had with it have little to do with the phone itself than the company that delivers the service for it.

Is there something obvious that I’m missing here?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.


  • This is one of those features that seems to be just designed to screw the customer over. That price, for that "microcell" is outrageous, and if there is no indication as to whether it's using your microcell or AT&T's own tower, it seems risky to use.

    I've heard endless good things about the iPhone, but until it can be used with an operator of my choice, I have no interest in it. AT&T is the last operator I want to get into a contract with.

    • According to the video that's on their site, the indicator on the phone does clearly state whether you're making a call from the MicroCell or the nearest cell tower…so if you have the unlimited in-house plan for $20 a month, then you have some indication. What concerns me is that though this device is supposed to give you up to a 5,000 square foot range, what happens if you start a long call inside, and walk through an open patio door to the porch and talk there? Does the phone give you an audible signal that you've switched off of the MicroCell? For that matter, what if one end of the house doesn't get as good MicroCell reception and it switches you to the tower mid-call: how does their network handle that?

      If there's no clear indication you can hear during a call that lets you know that you're no longer covered on a potentially unlimited deal, that could cause its own billing nightmare.

      • True. What also bothers me about this situation is the fact that the reception was good initially, and now it isn't. Unless you've been covering your house with aluminum, either there's an issue with the phone or the tower(s) in your area. They should be focusing on what's broken, and not on trying to sell you something that you shouldn't need.

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