The device also needs a GPS signal to function, so a view of the outside is necessary when setting it up. Wired AND near a window -- the double requirement could prove troublesome for some installations. It's not yet clear how often the unit needs to receive a GPS signal to keep working. Ours is sitting on a desk within six or seven feet of a window.
Before you get started with the setup, your MicroCell needs to be activated via the AT&T web site. Provide the serial number and some billing information and you're all set. There aren't many choices to make, so activation is simple. You can return to the interface later and add up to ten approved 3G devices. Four can be in use at one time.
Once the MicroCell is activated it can be connected using one of the configurations described above and powered up. Then it needs a little time to itself. The lights on the MicroCell will pass through different phases of flashing and not flashing and end up solid. According to AT&T, this initial config could take up to ninety minutes.
Once your lights go solid the MicroCell is ready for use... but our first unit never went solid. I spoke to an AT&T rep who seemed familiar with the device. He performed remote diagnostics and said the device had failed. The AT&T store exchanged it without any questions.
When your lights do go solid, you can start using your 3G phone. You'll see M-Cell at the top of the display, letting you know you're connected to the MicroCell. Calls can be handed off from your MicroCell to a regular tower, unless the signal outside your house is no better than inside.
Bargain-basement DSL might not be the best choice for the MicroCell. Web browsing while talking on the iPhone resulted in useless garbled audio. Without Internet use, voice quality was quite good. Not many calls have been made yet -- but one has already dropped. For a moment after the drop the iPhone displayed no bars but they quickly returned. Isolated anomaly? Hopefully.
AT&T suggests at least 1.5Mbps downstream and 256Kbps up, though they claim any broadband is adequate. The Lite DSL we're using delivers up to 1.5 Mbps up and 384 Kbps down. A recent speedtest resulted in slightly slower speeds. U-Verse would probably provide much better results.
Pros and Cons
So where does that leave us? On the down side we're out $150, because AT&T has substantial holes in its coverage. This is a part of Charlotte where it's more than reasonable to expect a good signal. Also on the downside, the MicroCell needs to be wired AND placed near a window. Maybe they'll add Wi-Fi in a future version.
The plus side is obvious: People with no bars at their home can now use an iPhone, if they want. AT&T set the monthly charge correctly at zero dollars; now they just need to slice the purchase price in half.
Another plus: The MicroCell is simple to set up, while still providing flexible connection options. It's the kind of device you shouldn't have to think about, and it seems AT&T got that right.
Finally, customers who have both AT&T DSL and an AT&T landline get unlimited minutes in exchange for their one-time $150. That's a decent deal.
If I couldn't get a signal at my house, I'd pay the $150 before I'd give up an iPhone. I believe that purchase price is a little high, but they can't make it free as some have demanded. The pricing provides great debate fuel, but AT&T needs to charge something to prevent wasteful consumption.
Hopefully the rest of you will have MicroCells available soon. I wonder if AT&T has any more surprises for Charlotte?