I tapped dial. There's ringing, and the call goes through. It's the first call I've made from my house in two years. All it took was AT&T's 3G MicroCell to give me 5 solid bars where there were none.
It's $150, no monthly fee, with no strings attached—but counts against your monthly cell minutes. For $20 a month, you get unlimited calling through the MicroCell. And, if you get an unlimited plan, the MicroCell drops to $50 after rebate. (If you have AT&T broadband, it knocks another $50 off.) Update: If you complain loudly enough to the right AT&T rep, you might be able to snag one for free.
A box about as big an oversized cable modem, the MicroCell is a mini cellphone tower that plugs into and passes calls through the internet connection you've already got, granting you a 40-foot radius of solid cell reception. Dead zones crackle to life; calls can be made without dropping.
The setup process is mostly plug and play—if you've got a router, it jacks into that, or if you plug your computer directly into a modem, it has a port for passthrough. You just activate the MicroCell through AT&T's website and then wait for about an hour as it springs to life (which is agonizing if you're revving to make the first call from your house in over two years. The MicroCell's only inconvenient installation requirement is a view of the sky for GPS reception—a necessity for 911 location services (and presumably the way AT&T prevents you from using it overseas).
It only works with AT&T numbers, and you can only have 10 numbers registered at once that can use the MicroCell. Since you have to assign the numbers through AT&T's site every time you want to add one, friends who're just stopping by (or your neighbors) won't be able to take advantage of your newly awesome reception, unless you add them to the list. And, even if you're friendly enough to add your buddies to the list, if they (or you, for that matter) have original iPhones, they won't be able to hop on—the MicroCell supports 3G phones only. The plus side is that it's the only femtocell that supports 3G data, so you can actually use it to check email on your phone.
AT&T's stated range of 40 feet held up flawlessly in our tests, passing through a wall and delivering strong reception 30 feet outside of the apartment (thanks to its combo of 850MHz and 1900MHz bands). Where it got sticky was at the edge of the reception zone—our test phones continued to show full bars until the connection abruptly died completely, and the phones began hunting for new signals.
That said, it's nothing short of revelatory, to suddenly have full reception where there was none, to make calls where one couldn't before.
There is a philosophical problem though: Should you buy a device that makes a service you already pay for simply work the way it's supposed to? Every carrier offers some form of in-home extension of their service—Sprint's Airave femotcell, Verizon's Network Extender, and T-Mobile's @Home—and they all charge you for it, even though you're routing calls over your own broadband connection. (And even though using the microcell eats up your minutes, unless you pay even more for unlimited.) It sucks. Maybe we should take a stand, refuse to pay more just to make cell service usable, and demand that they fix it or give the boxes away.
On other the hand, if you're not interested in making a stand, and just want to use your phone on the toilet after two years of not being able to, maybe $150 is worth it to you.
I CAN MAKE CALLS FROM MY HOUSE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN TWO YEARS
Basically perfect reception within a 40-foot radius
Only femtocell that pipes data too
Only available in a handful of cities so far
$150 to fix the service you already pay for
3G phones only