4G LTE Residential Broadband?

Sierra Wireless AirLink GX450
 
Though I didn’t properly appreciate it at the time, I was pretty fortunate to grow up in America’s rural midwest. A land of crops and livestock, open spaces, families, pickup trucks and freedom. And while low population density has many upsides, there are tradeoffs to every environment. One such tradeoff is the fact that broadband was much later in coming there than anywhere else I’ve ever been. And much less effective.

My folks back on the farm have been limited to around 1 Mb/s service at the best of times via DSL from Frontier Communications. A Frontier service representative told me last year on a support call that their DSL service had become oversubscribed in the area. Dad had come to expect fairly predictable service outages nearly every day. Frontier DSL in the area had become the Internet equivalent of living in a developing nation where electricity can’t be counted on around the clock.

While visiting my folks over Easter weekend, I happened to be updating one of my dad’s PCs to a newer release of Linux, necessitating that I also download around 1 GB of operating system updates. Rather than suffer through the download via his DSL, I used my AT&T iPhone as a Wi-Fi hotspot and downloaded the necessary files in minutes rather than hours. I was somewhat surprised by the speed of AT&T’s LTE cellular network, and assume that they have upgraded the local tower since my previous visit. In addition to being much faster than DSL, it was also faster than what I’d seen on Verizon in the area. Sprint is barely there, and T-Mobile is practically non-existent, though cellular networks are expanding all the time. That Easter visit got me to thinking.

Developing nations skip cabled telephone or Internet infrastructure and go straight to cellular networks. Perhaps for swaths of rural America, a similar approach makes sense at some point. But are we there today?

4G LTE Modem
I wanted to try out a 4G LTE modem in place of dad’s existing DSL modem. But which one? While AT&T sells a range of consumer-grade cellular Internet offerings, I wanted something with a high degree of flexibility and control. Something that could reasonably be expected to provide 24×7 always-on Internet service via AT&T’s LTE cellular network.

So I ended up ordering a Sierra Wireless AirLink GX450 from reseller USAT Corporation of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The AirLink GX450 is offered in both AT&T and Verizon-friendly versions, and starts at $499 with an AC adapter, before one adds an antenna or any extra modules. I added a penta-band indoor rubber-duck style antenna for an additional $25. Outdoor and mobile vehicle antennas are available.

The AirLink GX450 is an industrial unit in a steel case, designed for mobile and machine-to-machine applications. This unit would look at home in a police car, delivery vehicle or inside an ATM machine or kiosk. The configuration options are extensive, with around ten pages of settings. Expect to see all of the firewall and VPN options that you’d need to build out a secure data network using these units.

Activation
I stopped in at an AT&T store near my office in southern Connecticut to get a SIM card and to activate the AirLink GX450. This particular device takes a Mini-SIM (2FF), which contrary to its name, looks absolutely huge in the era of Micro and Nano SIMs. A phillips screwdriver is required, as one has to remove the top portion of the GX450’s enclosure to get to the SIM card socket. The AT&T saleswoman was very helpful and conversational, and got my transaction done in about ten minutes. There was no activation fee. The unit will cost an additional $20 a month on my AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan. It’ll pull from the same data bucket as any other device on my AT&T account, including my iPhone, iPad and a 2015 Chevy Silverado. We’ll talk more about the per-gigabyle cost later.

Configuration
The Sierra Wireless AirLink GX450 comes with a configuration sheet identifying how to set it up via a web browser. If you’re an IT guy or gal, or have set up home Wi-Fi routers, the interface is intuitive. I made the following changes from the defaults.

  • Enabled Keep Alive by setting the device to ping 8.8.8.8 on a five-minute interval when there is otherwise no activity.
  • Set an alternate primary and secondary DNS server, as Sierra’s default DNS provider is way slower than it should be.
  • Set Inbound Port Filtering Mode to only accept inbound traffic on specified ports, and then didn’t specify any. Consider this activating a firewall.
  • Disabled the AirVantage Management Service, as remote administration is not needed.
  • Disabled GPS service.
  • Changed the default password to a randomly-generated one.

Installation
Following preliminary testing at my residence, I boxed up the GX450 and FedEx’ed it to my parents. A day later, I called up and spoke with my father, now in his mid 70s. It took us maybe 15 minutes to talk through the process of shutting down and removing his Frontier DSL modem, and putting the AirLink GX450 in it’s place. Following some device reboots in the proper order, he now had Internet access via AT&T Wireless.
 
Another Speedtest via ATT Wireless
 
Speed
Dad’s first speed test came in at 8.20 Mb/s down and 4.74 Mb/s up. A later test would show 13.45 Mb/s down and 11.78 Mb/s up. Sure, for those of us living in more densely populated areas, these speeds aren’t exactly impressive. For instance, the download speed doesn’t meet the Federal Communications Commission’s current definition of broadband: 25 Mb/s down and 3 Mb/s up. But this bandwidth is 10 times as fast as dad’s typical recent experiences with Frontier DSL at their address. More important, it’s fast enough to get things done. And fast enough for remote knowledge workers too.

Reliability
Having initially determined the speed to be satisfactory, the next question would be reliability. Would this AirLink GX450 hold its connection to AT&T and give dad uninterrupted service that he can count on day to day?

During the first two weeks, the AirLink GX450 and AT&T delivered 24×7 residential broadband at his address with bandwidth and reliability that he hadn’t experienced previously. The only noticeable slowdown came around day 7, during Saturday evening primetime hours, with symptoms that suggested possible saturation of AT&T’s uplink to the Internet.

Cost
Whether any experiment is successful or not, it’s often worth doing. And if this experiment were to prove a failure at this point, it might only be in the area of cost. Dad used 6.9 GB of data in his first full week on AT&T 4G LTE. I hoped that the week was an anomaly, as I found myself flying out for another visit at the end of the week to perform some data-intensive maintenance on a second PC at the house. But the first week wasn’t an anomaly.

Were I to continue this experiment indefinitely, I’ll have to up my AT&T Mobile Share Plan to 30 GB of data at $225/month, plus the $20/month access fee for the AirLink GX450, and the various charges for my aforementioned iPhone, iPad and Chevy Silverado. That kind of spending is viewed as luxury self-indulgence by anyone in my family, something that we should be embarrassed to even mention. To put it another way, AT&T’s cost over the incumbent Frontier DSL scales linearly with the 10x boost in performance. At the same time, price is always relative, and there are those in this world who could demonstrate a decent return on investment with this improved connectivity.  Ultimately each of us has to decide for ourselves.

At the very least, if choosing 4G LTE as residential broadband, one would have to follow my sister’s advice when she first heard of this plan. “Just don’t tell them about Netflix!”

Cellular Desk Phone

Cellular desk phone on author's desk.

Cellular desk phone on author’s desk.


 
I’ve always liked cell phones. My first one was a Motorola Gold Series bag phone, circa 1993. My dad bought it, mostly because my sister and I traveled together on our 600 mile drives to and from college in a car that no one would really want to stake their life on. But the car proved reliable enough, and so did that Motorola bag phone. All 3 watts of analog output, as we traversed the American Midwest.

In the years that followed, I’ve had lots of cell phones. I stopped keeping track after phone #26, and that was long enough ago that the details and place are fuzzy. Ok, maybe it was a Motorola RAZR V3 in Chicago. Anyway, I’ve since slowed down, and have been primarily using my trusty iPhone 4 since June of 2011. Seems like forever in iPhone-years.

And while my iPhone of 2011 can do so much more than my Motorola Gold Series bag phone that was 18 years its predecessor, for me a phone still has only one killer app. Making phone calls. And despite an iPhone’s ability to handle a dozen e-mail accounts at once, or let me read Twitter from bed or bathroom, maybe it has more features than some of us really need or even want.

Maybe you just want to make phone calls using a real handset. Maybe you move ever so often, and would like a ‘home phone’ that can move with you. Maybe you want to equip your small business with phones that can be carried home as that next snowstorm or hurricane approaches. Or maybe, following Edward Snowden’s revelations and demonstrations like this one, you no longer wish to carry an always-connected, GPS-enabled, gyroscope-equipped, dual-camera mini computer in your pocket everywhere you go. For some, the idea of a cellular desk phone may be a simple product whose time has come.

Last week one of my respected colleagues walked into my office and noticed the phone pictured at the top of this article sitting on my desk. As perhaps a prototypical American, the concept seemed initially unfamiliar to him. This particular example is a cheap Chinese-sourced 2G GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz cellular phone, coincidentally about the same size as that original Motorola that I had all those years ago. I purchased this unit via eBay for less than $50. The primary power cord is European, but it accepts American 120V power via a cheap adapter. And the phone is compatible with either an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, and presumably a SIM from most MVNOs that ride either of these networks.

In my new, partially-below-ground office where my iPhone relies on an AT&T 3G MicroCell for adequate coverage, this 2G cellular desk phone shows a full five bars of native AT&T signal. Today I made two test calls spanning 50 minutes from this handset, and didn’t experience any glitches at all.

In addition to my low-cost example, there are higher-end cellular desk phones like this one from Great Britain and what may be my personal favorite from the Czech Republic. I only wish that American wireless carriers would embrace the concept of the cellular desk phone, as a step beyond recent half measures, where it makes sense. Who knows? When my iPhone ultimately stops working, maybe I’ll replace it with a simple desk phone instead.

AT&T Wireless: Multiple Regions, One Plan

AT&T_logo
On Tuesday, October 29th, 2013, AT&T Wireless quietly made an important change to one longstanding policy on personal wireless accounts.  Prior to Tuesday, individuals and families seeking to combine phone numbers from different regions of the country onto a single AT&T Wireless account were mostly out of luck.

This limitation had become a bigger deal in recent years.  The most mobile in our society – college students and young adults – often keep a particular cell phone number long after their area code ceases to reflect their current area of residence.  It’s not uncommon for two AT&T customers to eventually form a household and want to merge their phones into a family plan, only to be rebuffed when they wish to hang onto the phone numbers that they’ve each carried with them from place to place.

Prior to this week, there was one workaround.  Some customers had successfully migrated their personal accounts into what AT&T calls an ‘NBI’ account, short for National Business Indicator.  As the name implies, NBI accounts were never intended for personal or family use.  Successfully getting into one depended on finding an AT&T representative willing to bend the rules.  But no more.

AT&T now allows personal wireless customers to combine phone numbers from different regions into a single account as a matter of course.  What was formerly a big deal now isn’t.  You can combine phone numbers from any part of the United States onto a single AT&T Wireless account as easily as you can combine two numbers located in the same town.

Now as a tech guy, seeing is believing.  My current iPhone and iPad happen to comprise an AT&T Mobile Share plan and carry phone numbers from New York City.  I have a number from another region that I wished to put to the test and merge into my AT&T account.  So today I walked into an AT&T retail store in Shelton, Connecticut.  In a matter of minutes, an AT&T Retail Sales Consultant was able to port the other number into my existing AT&T account.  I’ll be billed a $35 activation fee, and my Mobile Share plan’s monthly bill will increase to reflect the additional device.  The process is finally just as simple as it should be, making for good news for AT&T’s current and future customers.

iPhone Data Leak Identified?

It’s no secret that I’m an Apple fan.  It’s not an exclusive relationship; I’ve also got a couple of Lenovo systems running Linux at home.  But over the last decade, I’ve purchased multiple iPods, an iMac, a Mac Mini, a MacBook and my current 13” MacBook Pro, iPhone 4 and new iPad.  I’ve spent more of my personal income on Apple hardware over the years than with any other single computer vendor.  For the most part, Apple solutions work well for me in a wide variety of roles, both personal and professional.  Clearly Apple stands to gain from long-term customer relationships like mine.  Unfortunately, despite many positive experiences with Apple, not everything coming out of Cupertino is perfect.

Today’s long story began in mid-June, 2011, when I finally climbed aboard the iPhone bandwagon with the shiny new, white iPhone 4 on AT&T.  The phone shipped with iOS 4.x; there was no reason to note the exact version number at the time, though it was probably 4.2.1.  I set up my various work and personal e-mail addresses, synced my music, and was off and running into the world of iOS apps.  Admittedly I was relatively late to the party.  But I wasn’t the last.  My employer has since all but abandoned BlackBerrys in favor of iPhones, and the BYOD phenomenon is slowly bringing in more iPhones and iPads here as time goes on.  And with them came some strange problems, affecting me perhaps most of all.

During my first year of iPhone use, I twice ran into the following scenario.  For a while everything would be fine.  My iPhone was set to use Wi-Fi both at home and at the office, meaning that I only used 3G cellular data while in transit back and forth, or while out and about, traveling, and the like.  Typically I’d use about 200 MB of 3G data per month, though my plan allowed for 2 GB.  Suddenly I’d notice that my iPhone battery life – previously good from the start of the day to the end – would instead run down before the noon hour regardless of use or lack thereof.  If I handled the phone, it would be warm to the touch.  Finally, when I’d get the cell phone bill, the 3G data use had surged from 200 MB per month up to 2 GB or more, an increase of at least 900% from my norm.  What the heck!?  I talked AT&T into forgiving an overage charge the first time.  I’ve since become a prolific user of the myAT&T app, keeping a close tab on data consumption patterns.
 

Two iPhones compared

The properly-functioning iPhone on the left has gone 25 hours since the last charge and still has 52% battery life remaining. The very same device, when malfunctioning, is down to 5% battery after only 4 hours and 55 minutes since the previous full charge. The one on the right indicates that it’s been in constant use when it really hasn’t.


 
You could say that a significant part of my day job includes troubleshooting technical problems.  Of course this is balanced with a desire to find a scenario that works and move on, rather than exhaustively analyze something with relatively minor monetary or business value.  On the first occurrence of the battery drain + warm to the touch + 3G data explosion, I began closing apps, rebooting the iPhone, etc.  No change.  I did my Google homework, and while many seemed to be in a similar boat, I couldn’t find a solution.  I may have called Apple, but didn’t keep a record of it.  Finally, I wiped the device, set it up as if it were a new iPhone, and began syncing my apps back on, a few per day.  I hoped to discover that a rogue app was the culprit.  Eventually I had all the same apps back on, and the phone performed great for months.  I hoped it was a one-time thing.

Some time after my initial encounter of battery drain + warm + 3G data surge, an IT colleague across the hall from me at work began experiencing the very same thing on her iPhone 4S on Verizon.  Her phone had a connection configured to our corporate Microsoft Exchange e-mail server, but she’d literally made no other customizations.  No Apple ID.  No apps.  Nothing.  In hindsight, this should have been a major clue.  I helped her wipe and reconfigure the device as if it were new, and she was off and running again.  For months, but not forever.

When the scenario returned a second time on my iPhone, I contacted Apple Support on case number 311217544.  (I’ll mention case and follow-up numbers as I go, on the chance that anyone inside Apple ever reviews this post.)  I believe that this contact was on May 1st, 2012.  I didn’t really get anywhere.  As expected, the Support Agent was sure that it was a user problem, and gave me a list of settings to check and suggestions about how to reduce battery drain by hobbling certain functionality.  Having been on the other side of the support desk, I know how easy it is to assume that the customer is using the technology wrong.  How could there be something inherently wrong with the technology?  Apple is perfect.  By the way, I’d long since upgraded to iOS 5.x by this time.

Feeling more certain that there was an inherent but sporadic flaw somewhere in iOS, I wasn’t yet content to just wipe and reload, and go on with a few more months of normal use before the problem reared it’s head again.  I tried reaching out to a couple of Apple employees who listed an e-mail address publicly on their LinkedIn profile.  No response.  I pasted what may have been a long-winded letter into an Apple.com web form, even offering to FedEx them my malfunctioning iPhone for analysis.  I got an e-mail reply follow-up 205549136 indicating that my concern had been documented in case number 311234175.  Eventually I wiped and reloaded my iPhone again, and went on with life.  It’s not like I didn’t have better things to do.

Following Thanksgiving, 2012, I noted that both my iPhone 4 and a recently-acquired new iPad – both now running iOS 6.0.1 – were doing the battery drain + warm to the touch + 3G data slurp again.  And here I’d been hoping that Apple finally got it right with iOS 6.  I finally contacted Apple Support again on case number 383766567.  This time I spent an hour and six minutes on the phone, and was advanced to a person with the title Senior Advisor iOS Tier 2.  Before being escalated, I was advised to turn off cellular data, cut back on location services, and otherwise hobble the iPhone.  After escalation to Tier 2 and sharing my history with this issue, I was advised to wipe and reload each device, and then put my apps back on slowly.  Just as I had the very first time around.  She couldn’t explain why my iPad was using cellular data even when it hadn’t left my apartment and available Wi-Fi in the several days leading up to our conversation.  Based on the advice to put apps back on slowly, she was probably thinking rogue app.  I wiped my devices, set them up as if they were new, synced back all the same apps, set up all the same e-mail accounts and settings, etc.  And they’re once again fine.

As I alluded to several paragraphs ago, my employer uses Microsoft Exchange 2003 for e-mail, calendaring and the like.  While Exchange 2003 may be a little long in the tooth at this point, it does the job, and we’ve been investing our efforts in many line-of-business application enhancements instead.  When we have a new iOS device, we use the Exchange e-mail client native to iOS to connect to our corporate Exchange ActiveSync server.  We then let the end-user manage everything else.  For most of us, a connection to our Exchange environment may be the one thing that we have in common between our iOS devices.

This week our front-end Exchange ActiveSync server became unresponsive.  First it had filled the disk space clear full with large IIS log files in C:\WINDOWS\system32\LogFiles\W3SVC1\, and I quickly cleared all but December’s logs to regain room.  (Normally one should redirect their log files to a drive other than C:\.)  Even after re-gaining quite a few GBs of disk space and rebooting, the server was still intermittently sluggish.  I found myself restarting it two more times, and finally adding additional virtual processors and RAM.  At the same time, I began examining these log files, which were between 40 MB and 100 MB per day.  The logs cover every connection to Exchange Outlook Web Access and ActiveSync.  It’s an understatement to say that there were a lot of connections.  And that’s where I finally caught a break.

Out of thirty-five iOS devices that connected to our corporate Exchange environment that day, five of them (three iPhones and two iPads), were connecting to Exchange every two to three seconds, continuously, twenty-four hours a day, as long as they were powered on.  That’s well past 10,000 individual connections per day for each of those five devices.  To put it another way, this over-connection to Exchange was affecting 14% of our Apple inventory.  If you factor in all the devices that have ever had this problem, it represents over 22% of our Apple iOS inventory.  It bears mentioning that this behavior is not normal, even with Push e-mail enabled, as evidenced by the remaining 77% of our Apple devices that have apparently never done it.

But it gets more interesting.  I found a log from just prior to wiping my iPhone, and it had been connecting to Exchange every two to three seconds on both Wi-Fi and cellular, all day and all night.  No wonder the battery had been running down while the 3G data use had been climbing.  When we surveyed the owners of our five over-communicative iDevices, they all confirmed that their battery life had been awful lately.  One of them was using an iPhone 5 running just-released iOS 6.0.2.  Wiping and reloading the devices has resolved their functional problems too.  And our Exchange server logs confirm it.

So, we’ve narrowed the iPhone battery drain and data leak to a sporadic problem with iOS’s Exchange client as implemented in iOS 4.x, 5.x, 6.0.1 and 6.0.2, on both iPhone and iPad, while connecting to Exchange 2003.  To be fair, we also have one very chatty Android 4.0.4 device in our environment, but nothing quite like the two to three second interval of the handful of runaway iOS devices.  It’s completely possible that Apple’s Exchange client only has problems with certain versions of Exchange, and that some customers may not experience it at all.  Going the other way, it could perhaps affect push e-mail more broadly, and not just Exchange.  The hit-and-miss nature of it is troubling.  At 22% percent of our devices affected at one time or another, this feels akin to a beta-quality experience; not what Apple is trying to sell.

Naturally I provided a summary of my most recent observations to Apple via e-mail, referencing case number 383766567.  I received a call back the next day from our Senior Advisor iOS Tier 2.  At first she asked me to wipe and reload a device, and put back Exchange accounts one at a time, as if to identify a problematic account.  Of course several of our affected users only have a single Exchange account, and wiping the device has historically always resolved the problem for months at a time.  This presents as a problem that, while sporadic, seems inherent to iOS, and manifests itself under an as-yet-unidentified set of potentially common circumstances.  The support agent acknowledged that other companies may be similarly affected, and that they “haven’t put two and two together yet.”  I offered to provide the log files so that Apple wouldn’t have to take my word for it regarding the connection intervals.

I expect to hear from Apple again next week.  While I feel like I’m nearing the end of a 1.5 year odyssey – only to finally be taken seriously – my purpose in publishing this now is not to make anyone wrong.  Rather, I want to share a summary of our iOS Exchange client problem – and the battery drain and 3G data consumption that accompany it – with a wider audience of IT peers, in order to better understand the true scope of the problem.  As I mentioned to our Senior Advisor iOS Tier 2, I’d be thrilled if Apple simply fixed this problem in the next major iOS upgrade, and I never saw it again.  Here’s hoping.  I’ll share any newly-revealed information in a follow-up post.  If you have anything to add to this conversation, please do so below.

[While I added a series of updates and a much easier fix here, and garnered some repeat visitors, I’ve since consolidated these into a second post.]

Port a Number From Google Voice

We’re all familiar with the wine snob or the cinema snob, in concept, if not in reality.  And while I’d like to believe that I’m relatively humble in most regards, perhaps there’s one thing that I am guilty of.  I might be a phone number snob.  Or maybe just an aficionado.  It’s a ridiculous fascination, to be sure, especially in an age when many of us click on the name of the person that we want to call, rather than punching in his or her ten digits.  But as humans, we like what we like.  Rather than question it, I’ll indulge my obsession on the chance that someone else finds the following discussion interesting or helpful.  As promised by the headline, we’ll get to the topics of Google Voice and number portability sooner or later.

Area Codes
In my particular case, I begin by thinking about area codes.  I like an area code that conveys locational prestige of one sort or another, to the extent that such a thing actually exists (anywhere other than in my own mind).  Months after moving east, I took the time to get a cell phone with Midtown Manhattan’s 212 area code, despite the fact that I actually live a train-ride away in southwest Connecticut.  Today that 212 number serves as my home / office / mobile number, and is the only number printed on my business cards and listed in the signature block of my work e-mails.  Of course the 212 area code isn’t the only one that has economic, pop-culture or political ties, and you may have your own favorite area or area code that you wouldn’t mind using whether you actually live there or not.

Ends in Nice Numbers
When selecting a phone number, I also prefer one that ends in zero if at all possible, with those ending in five as my second choice.  A phone number that ends in 8250 has a more official feel than one that ends in 2583.  While I prefer as much uniformity in my numbers as I can get, some might look for a particular series of digits that spells something or caries other personal meaning.  That’s where Google Voice comes in.

Google Voice
If you’re not already familiar with Google Voice, it’s Google’s free Voice over IP (sort of) service that includes a phone number, voicemail, speech to text, texting, free domestic calls, call forwarding, and low cost international calling.  It’s actually a pretty amazing bundle of features, given the price point of zero dollars.  But my favorite feature of Google Voice is that you can pick from a decent number of area codes and prefixes from all over the United States, and then select the final number of your liking.  Google Voice numbers aren’t available for every area code, but it’s a better way to find a number than leaving it up to random chance.  While experimenting with Google Voice last year, I picked up a pretty great number located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC.  The number looks like it could belong to a political office or a major campaign.

You Can Take It With You
Google Voice is already portable, as there’s an app for Apple’s iOS and Google’s own Android mobile operating system.  For many, Google Voice may provide the most value when used as intended. But for some of us, we may decide that Google Voice isn’t exactly what we’re looking for, and we’d rather take the number with us and go somewhere else.  Specifically, I wanted to see if I could port my fantastic Google Voice number over to a traditional cell phone instead.  People say that they’ve done it, and that it isn’t that hard.  We’ll see about that.

The Inexpensive Experiment
When it comes to “what if” exercises, I don’t like to throw a lot of money at them.  I definitely don’t have money to burn.  On the chance that you don’t either, I’ll note my expenses for various things, and tally up this experiment at the end.  Let’s see how well we keep costs in check.

Finding A Phone
If we’re going to try to port a number to a cell phone, then obviously we have to have a cell phone to port it to.  Being the tech guy that I am, I went rummaging through some bins and came up with an old Motorola RAZR V3.  The phone had AT&T’s logo on the back, indicating that it was almost certainly locked to that provider, but technical instinct told me that the phone could be made to work on any GSM network.  I couldn’t find the AC charger that went with the phone, but I did have a Mini USB cable that I could use to charge the phone from my laptop.  I let the phone charge overnight.  If you don’t have a bin full of castoff hardware, maybe you have a nerdy friend that does.  Cost so far: zero.  But I’d later pony up $4.35 for an AC wall charger for the phone at Amazon.  As an Amazon Prime customer, I paid no shipping charge, nor was Connecticut sales tax added.

With GSM Phones Only
As I happen to be using a GSM phone, I needed to get a SIM for the phone.  (Had I been migrating to a phone made for Verizon or Sprint, the SIM steps in this paragraph and the next would not have been necessary.)  Now I’m already an AT&T customer, with both an iPhone and an iPad on their new Mobile Share service.  In theory, it should be a simple matter to get another phone added to my account.  But Internet tales and personal experience lead me to believe that it would be a hassle to try to add a phone number from a different geographic area to my existing AT&T account, requiring that it first be converted to a business account and all that.  As this was an experiment, I didn’t want to go that far initially.  If the process proved successful, I could always go through the pain with AT&T later.

I decided instead to run this experiment with a company who has never heard of me, and one with whom I have no prior experience.  I went to the other ‘nationwide’ GSM network: T-Mobile.  Via Google, I found a link where T-Mobile is offering, at the time of this writing, a “free” SIM card with no activation fee.  The transaction actually costs $1.05, just enough to force would-be customers to provide a credit card number.  Curiously, T-Mobile also asked several probing questions used to verify my identity beyond a reasonable doubt.  Questions like “Which of the following counties did [your mom] own property in during the last 10 years?” and “Which of the following companies have you worked for?”  I just want a cell phone SIM, not a mortgage!  Perhaps T-Mobile executives have watched too many episodes of HBO’s The Wire, and don’t want to be a source of anonymous cell phones.  Anyway, even with T-Mobile’s online interrogation, the process took only about five minutes.  And the SIM arrived the very next day.

Enable Porting
After receiving my SIM, and just prior to activating my T-Mobile service, I have to first enable porting of my Google Voice number.  Google has a special link to faciliate this.  Upon visiting the link, your Google Voice number will be displayed.  Click on a box labeled ‘Unlock my number’ to begin the process.  While Google gave you the phone number for free when you signed up for Google Voice, they charge you a $3.00 fee to port it out.  You’ll be prompted for a credit card at this time.  Continue as prompted until you get to an ‘Unlocked’ status.  Once your number is unlocked, you’re ready to port it out to another carrier of your choice.  I returned to the page on the next business day to check the status.  This time, out beside ‘Unlocked’ was an ‘Approved’ notation.

Status of Google Voice Number

Google Voice Account Unlocked And Approved For Number Porting

Cell Phone Activation
Having prepared the source of this phone number porting exercise, it’s now time to prepare the destination.  I went to T-Mobile’s Prepaid Activation page to begin.  In the process of signing up, I listed the phone number that I wanted to transfer from Google Voice.  T-Mobile asked for an account number and PIN number, and I specified the same Google Voice number in those boxes as well.  I signed up for a Pay As You Go plan.  As with every other step so far, this process took about five minutes.  I tried to actually pay something on my T-Mobile account, but was told that “The T-Mobile refill system is currently unavailable.”  Fortunately that free SIM card came with a $3.34 initial value, enough to activate the phone and test it.

Unlocking Locked Phone
Remember that my aging Motorola RAZR V3 was originally locked to AT&T’s network?  Well, I went to Cellunlocker.net and paid $7.99 for an unlock code for this particular phone.  They ask for the phone’s IMEI number, generated the unlock code, and sent it to me via e-mail in a matter of minutes.  This step would only be necessary for someone wishing to use a GSM phone that was locked to one network with service provided by another.  But it’s nice to know that such a thing is available.  With the unlock code in hand, I put my T-Mobile SIM in the AT&T-branded Motorola phone, fired it up, and was prompted to ‘Enter Subsidy Password’.  The code from Cellunlocker.net was accepted, after which the phone displayed T-Mobile in the upper, left-hand corner.  And then I took a look at the reception indicator.

T-Mobile SIM in an ATT Phone

T-Mobile SIM in an AT&T Phone

T-Mobile Reception
Cell phone reception – good or bad – is an extremely local phenomenon.  Generally speaking, I’d categorize the four nationwide networks in the following order by coverage: (1) Verizon (2) AT&T, (3) Sprint and (4) T-Mobile.  But the signal strength on your block has a loose correlation at best to a carrier’s national footprint.  In my current apartment, the reception on my iPhone on AT&T is adequate, but not great.  Sometimes it’s three bars, on rare occasions it jumps to four, and sometimes it drops as low as one bar for minutes at a time.  I tend to leave the phone near the window and walk around with a Bluetooth earpiece in my ear.  So imagine my pleasant surprise when the Moto RAZR on T-Mobile showed a full five bars!  And not just at home, as I’d later discover.  Having taken all the steps to get to this point, and having fired up my phone on the T-Mobile network, I now had to wait patiently until the phone number transfer completed.

An ATT and T-Mobile Phone Side By Side

AT&T and T-Mobile Reception Side By Side

Completing Transfer
I began my number porting exercise on Friday evening after work, which is perhaps the very worst time to start it.  Any activities that rely on human acknowledgement aren’t likely to be touched over the weekend.  By Monday evening, I still hadn’t observed any progress from T-Mobile.  So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to fire up a T-Moble Live Chat and ask for an estimated time to completion.  The chat-based agent suggested that I call T-Mobile’s Number Transfer Center at 877-789-3106.  During a 23-minute call, I learned that Google Voice lines are seen as wire lines by other vendors, and that T-Mobile was slated to complete my transfer the following day.  It’s unlikely that my call was necessary.  Sometime Tuesday morning, I received a text message on the Moto RAZR indicating that the transfer was complete.  I began playing with it Tuesday afternoon, confirming calls in and out, and setting up my voicemail.  Separately, during that Friday-to-Tuesday interval, I had stopped in at Wal-Mart and picked up a $10 T-Mobile Pay As You Go card, for an after-tax cost of $10.55.

Total Expenses
I spent a total of $26.94 to confirm that I could port a Google Voice number to a cell phone provider with little difficulty and only a moderate amount of patience required.  That’s really not bad.  The line item expenses were as follows.

Old phone: $0.00
Charger: $4.35
T-Mobile SIM: $1.05
Google unlock fee: $3.00
Phone unlock fee: $7.99
Pay As You Go card: $10.55

Having Fun
Like many IT professionals, I’m no longer constantly excited by technology.  I may go weeks at a time where my job is just a job; a means to an end.  Yet the process of testing number portability out of Google Voice was so exciting that I got up at 4:00 AM on the morning after I initiated the transfer.  I was no longer able to sleep.  It’s that cool.  If you’re so inclined, you might give it a run as well.  And if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call at 202 … nah.  But you might post a comment below.  Meanwhile, I’ll be out and about, comparing T-Mobile’s signal strength to AT&T’s.

The iFusion SmartStation

iFusion SmartStation

(Photo provided by Jeremiah Fleming of AltiGen Communications, Inc.)


 
When I first arrived in Southwest Connecticut just under two years ago, I quickly had four phone lines: a VoIP-based ‘land line’ at home that was bundled in with my cable TV and Internet service, a personal cell phone, a direct line at my office, and a work-issued BlackBerry phone.  It’s probably no surprise to those who know me that I could never remember my own phone number(s).  Over time I’ve pared back of course, as four phone numbers for one person is wasteful if not a bit crazy.  Recently one device – the iFusion SmartStation – has let me shrink my phone footprint down to a single iPhone 4 for all of my calls.

At Home
Now when I’m at home having a casual phone conversation, I’m as content as the next guy to hold my iPhone up to the side of my head.  It feels ergonomic enough with Apple’s Bumper wrapped around it, and I have decent reception indoors thanks to an AT&T 3G MicroCell, reviewed here last year.  My personal calls are infrequent enough that I don’t worry about the electromagnetic radiation being absorbed by my head.

On the Road
And when I’m driving, my vehicle’s Bluetooth integration works well and automatically, such that I never have to touch the phone to answer calls in transit.  I can also place calls using only a single button on the steering wheel followed by voice commands, provided that I’ve previously added the person to my truck’s address book.

At Work
But the office was another story.  It’s the last bastion where the land line reigns supreme.  For starters, if I’m going to use a cell phone exclusively at work, it has to last the entire work day, regardless of that day’s activities.  In my current role as a Senior Systems Administrator, there are days when most of my conversations are conducted face-to-face with my IT colleagues and others in the office.  And then there are days where I participate in a series of conference calls or remote troubleshooting sessions, either of which can rack up significant call time that would drain any cell phone’s battery.  There are ergonomic issues to consider, as I personally don’t enjoy cradling a cell phone to the side of my head with my shoulder for an extended period of time while trying to type with both hands on a keyboard.  Obviously one’s cell phone reception would have to be consistent enough at their desk so as to avoid dropped calls.  And who’s to say whether several hours a day of holding a cell phone directly against one’s head might result in a higher level of electromagnetic radiation absorption than might be healthy for some.  Well, the iFusion SmartStation makes significant strides in all of these areas.

How it Works
As is evident in the picture above, the iFusion SmartStation is essentially a charging dock and corded handset for the iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4, and 4S that is styled like a business desk phone.  Instead of having a business phone’s keypad and display, the iFusion leverages your iPhone for both.  Power is provided to the iPhone via the dock connector, while the voice integration between the base and the iPhone are done through Bluetooth pairing.  The iFusion base provides full-duplex speakerphone functionality and volume controls.  You can play music from your iPhone through the iFusion’s speaker, with the iPhone muting the music when a call comes in and then resuming upon completion.  As the speaker isn’t exactly high fidelity, there’s also a stereo output on the iFusion base to connect a larger set of desktop speakers if music is your thing.  It’s really nice to leave the office at the end of the day with a full charge, despite having used the phone a significant amount throughout the day.

The Fit
The iFusion SmartStation has enough extra room in the recessed tray to accommodate most after-market iPhone cases, whether they add to the phone’s width, height or thickness.  The only cases that appear problematic are those that have a rubber cover over the dock connector that hinges at the back.  Given rumors that the next model of iPhone may be larger in size and / or change to a new, smaller dock connector, we can’t assume that the current iFusion will work with iPhones beyond the currently supported 3G, 3GS, 4, and 4S.  There’s a possibility that an iFusion purchased today may have to be refreshed more often, as is typical of a cell phone, than the long cycle used for traditional business telephone assets.

Reception
I work in an interior office, with a window that looks out into the hallway rather than outside.  My cell phone reception has never been great at my desk.  When holding my iPhone in my hand, the reception would indicate between one and three bars.  As I adjusted the phone relative to my head, the reception would come and go, even dropping calls on occasion.  Upon first getting the iFusion SmartStation, I observed that I had much more consistent cellular reception with my iPhone sitting in the base while I held the corded handset to my head.  Using an iFusion may help pull in fringe reception.  After a couple of weeks, I added an AT&T 3G MicroCell at the office, raising my iPhone’s signal strength to a full five bars from that point on.

The Feel
This is where the iFusion SmartStation really shines.  After a one-time setup, where we pair our iPhone with the iFusion base via Bluetooth, using the iFusion couldn’t be easier.  Simply drop the phone in the cradle when you sit down at your desk and take it with you when you leave.  Your phone charges in place while it sits there.  Incoming calls ring the iFusion’s speaker.  You simply pick up the handset to answer, as you would on a normal phone, and hang it up to end the call.  There’s nothing about using the iFusion day-to-day that isn’t intuitive, especially to someone who already owns an iPhone.  The fit and finish are superb, giving the feel of a professional device that’s as nice as anything on your desk.  Nicer in my case.  And the iFusion is available in either black or white to match your iPhone.

The Bill
During the first full month with the iFusion SmartStation, my iPhone calling ballooned to 1583 minutes, or over 26 hours on the phone!  As I’m on AT&T and had previously accumulated a large cache of rollover minutes, I wasn’t concerned about right-sizing my calling plan prior to beginning the experiment.  As I continue at this rate, however, I’ll need to add AT&T’s Nation Unlimited plan for an additional $30 per month over my current basic Nation 450 plan.  But would that be a good deal?

I work for a medium-sized business that has negotiated fairly attractive rates for our in-state, domestic and international long distance calls.  It’s not free, but it’s close.  Upon analyzing my own mix of calls – inbound and outbound, personal and business, local, toll-free and various tiers of long distance  – it turns out that my company would have paid only $13.43 last month had I made all of my outbound business long-distance calls on the existing land line instead of my iPhone.  Were my particular calling patterns to grow uniformly, I’d have to use around 59 hours of cellular calling each month before AT&T’s $30 Nation Unlimited add-on made financial sense strictly as a business phone replacement.  That’s a lot of time on the phone for a guy who’s not known to say very much.  Any less than that, and I’ll be paying for a convenience factor.  Granted, it’s so convenient – both for myself and anyone trying to reach me – that I’m willing to pay the difference out of my own pocket and plan to do so going forward.  Hey, I can finally remember my own phone number!

Conclusion
Historically a phone was just a phone.  We made and received calls on it when we were in.  Now it goes everywhere we go.  And of course we send and receive e-mail and run all manner of apps, from depositing checks via photograph to remotely starting one’s car.  Maybe having just one phone and phone number for all aspects of our lives is enough.  All of this is possible, of course, on both the iPhone and the numerous phone options running Google’s Android.  As a tech guy, I’m sure that I could get along just fine with an Android phone and get everything done that I wish to get done.  But there’s a catch.  The iFusion SmartStation reminds me that the Apple ecosystem is now rich with accessories and solutions that dramatically enhance the overall Apple experience.  The iFusion SmartStation is among the best of the devices that I’ve encountered.  It’s so good that it creates something of a barrier to exit: I’d now hate to give up my iFusion in order to consider the phone competition.  It’s hard to imagine a similar system that works with the last four generations of all Android phones, given the relatively huge number of models.  Steve Jobs chose to keep it simple at Apple rather than trying to create a product for every niche.  And in doing so, he enhanced the value proposition of the entire Apple ecosystem.

The iFusion SmartStation carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $199.99.  It is available at the time of this writing for $179.99 from thefusionphone.com or $149.99 using a Twitter Promo.

 

[Update: I stated earlier that, “The iFusion SmartStation has enough extra room in the recessed tray to accommodate most after-market iPhone cases.”  I recently swapped out a Case-Mate Barely There case for the popular Speck CandyShell, only to discover that the CandyShell’s thicker surrounding interferes with use of the iFusion SmartStation.  Specifically, with an iPhone in a CandyShell, the phone doesn’t make adequate contact to recharge while sitting in the iFusion base.  That’s unfortunate, so I went looking for another Case-Mate.]

The AT&T 3G MicroCell

Are you struggling with poor cellular phone reception inside your home or small office?  At the same time, do you have reliable broadband Internet service?  Then the answer to your cell phone problems may be as simple as installing a femtocell such as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender or the Sprint AIRAVE.  Think of a femtocell as your own personal cellular site based in your living room, that leverages your broadband Internet connection to route your phone calls back to the carrier’s network.  Instead of relying on a cell tower that may be blocks or miles away, you have one literally within arm’s reach.  Having had some extra time over Memorial Day weekend, I purchased and installed an AT&T 3G MicroCell for use in the living room in southwest Connecticut.

[Before we get started, we should note that that the term ‘microcell’ in telecommunications generally refers to a cell with a coverage area of between 200 meters and 2 kilometers.  AT&T’s “3G MicroCell,” on the other hand, has a range of around 40 feet from the device, or about 5000 square feet, typical of a femtocell.  AT&T’s use of the microcell nomenclature has been a source of contention in some on-line discussions.]

Acquiring the Device
AT&T 3G MicroCellAT&T doesn’t sell their 3G MicroCell via the web, so my adventure began by stopping in at a local AT&T Store to pick up the device.  I shelled out a one-time fee of $199.99 for the hardware, and was in and out of the store in about five minutes.  At least that’s how it should have gone.

Hiccup
In my particular case, this first 3G MicroCell turned out to have a defective Ethernet port, so I went through a round of troubleshooting at home that would be familiar to any technical professional but potentially frustrating for everyone else.  I then began this project anew back at the AT&T Store two hours later.  The second trip to the store took a little longer, as a sales professional exhibited what I interpreted as mild skepticism that the first device was truly defective.  It didn’t help that the pentaband 3G phone attached to my AT&T account at that time wasn’t one that AT&T has ever sold, so their computer warned them that it may not be a compatible 3G device.  Even so, this second visit didn’t last more than fifteen minutes.

At Home (The Second Time)
Once at home with a functional MicroCell in hand, setup was uncomplicated to anyone who has ever configured even the basic settings on a home router or wireless access point.

  1. We start by configuring the 3G MicroCell via the web before we ever physically connect or power on the device.  Begin by navigating to http://att.com/3GMicroCell and choose the Activate button.
  2. You’ll have to identify whether you’re adding the 3G MicroCell to a personal or business account, at which point you’ll be prompted for your credentials to authenticate to that account.
  3. Next, you’ll have to provide the physical address where the device will reside, so that emergency personnel can locate you in the event that you ever call 911.  There’s no conceivable reason lie about your address, as the 3G MicroCell uses GPS to confirm its location.  (More on that in the next section.)  It is perfectly acceptable to register and install a 3G MicroCell at an address other than your current AT&T billing address.  For example, the billing address on my AT&T account is a PO box in Manhattan while I live in southwest Connecticut.
  4. Finally, you’ll want to specify any additional phone numbers beyond your own that you want to allow to use this device, up to ten in total.  After adding all the members of your household, you may wish to add your most frequent iPhone-toting guests to the list.  As the name implies with ‘AT&T’ and ‘3G’ in the description, only 3G phones on the AT&T network can work with the MicroCell.

Connecting the 3G MicroCell to Your Home Network

  1. As mentioned in the prior section, the 3G MicroCell uses GPS to validate it’s location for E911 compliance.  AT&T recommends that you place the MicroCell within 3 feet of a window in order to receive a GPS signal.  I set mine next to the cable modem and WiFi router, which happened to be around 8 feet from a southern wall that is predominantly windows.  It works just fine.  For those who wish to place the 3G MicroCell further away from a window or out of site, you may be able to use a 3rd-party GPS antenna to move the device further into your home while maintaining a GPS signal.
  2. In a perfect world, connecting your 3G MicroCell to your home network may be no more complicated than plugging it in to an available Ethernet port on your home router or wireless access point.  While I haven’t identified where AT&T explicitly states it, their instructions lead one to believe that the MicroCell uses UPnP to automatically open the necessary TCP/IP ports through many consumer-class routers.  For those who prefer to configure their firewall manually, you must open the following TCP/IP ports to this device as listed in the manual: 23/UDP, 443/TCP, 500/UDP and 4500/UDP.  Or there’s a third option…
  3. …If you wish to prioritize your call traffic over any of your other Internet traffic, as I do, AT&T supports connecting the 3G MicroCell between your cable/DSL modem and your home router/firewall/wireless access point.  The MicroCell has an in and an out Ethernet jack specifically for this scenario.  When connected in this manner, your phone call traffic can’t be stepped on by any large downloads or Netflix streaming that you do from time to time.
  4. Once you’ve got your device physically placed and connected to your network, it’s time to plug in the power.  The 3G MicroCell is ready for use only after all 5 lights have lit up green.  AT&T asks you to allow up to 90 minutes the first time around.  It took about 60 for me.  When all five lights are green, you’re ready to make or receive calls.

Using the 3G MicroCell
iPhone 4 connected to AT&T 3G MicroCellAs stated earlier, you can add up to a total of ten AT&T cell phone numbers to your 3G MicroCell during activation, or later on as needed.  Any phone on this list should automatically switch over to your 3G MicroCell shortly after coming within range.  You’ll know that your phone is connected when its screen indicates “AT&T MicroCell” or “AT&T M-Cell.”

Calls that you initiate while connected to the 3G MicroCell are supposed to be handed off to AT&T’s regular network if you leave home mid-call, however the reverse is not the case.  If you come within range of the MicroCell while talking through AT&T’s network, your phone won’t connect to the MicroCell until you terminate the current call.  And I’m not so sure that the call hand-off as you leave the MicroCell’s range actually works either, as I’ll touch on a couple of sections from now.  You may find it necessary to conduct each call in its entirety via the MicroCell if that’s where it was initiated.

Initial Impression
Where calling from the living room was hardly worth it before, calls there have been completely reliable since installing the 3G MicroCell.  That alone may validate the one-time cost of purchase for those who find themselves in a similar scenario.  When in the living room, I no longer have any concern as to my phone working clearly and reliably.

[Update 07/13: In using the MicroCell for over a month, I’ve noticed that it takes longer than usual to connect my first outbound call each time I come within range of the device.  Other than that and the ‘AT&T M-Cell’ denoted on my phone, I wouldn’t know the difference between this and good reception from AT&T’s traditional network.]

Signal Too Strong!?
Now I’m not actually the ideal candidate for the 3G MicroCell, and this is an important matter to consider before buying one.  AT&T recommends not using the MicroCell if you already have “3 bars” or more cellular coverage from their network.  The living room on the south end of my apartment had completely unreliable AT&T coverage, making it perfect for the MicroCell.  My bedroom on the north side of the building has a large window facing the street and a commuter rail line.  Not surprisingly, AT&T’s signal strength was nearly adequate on this edge of the apartment before the MicroCell.  Now I find that my phone is jumping back and forth between AT&T’s regular network and the MicroCell when in my bedroom, resulting in some dropped calls that aren’t really supposed to happen but do.  I’d be better off if AT&T’s terrestrial network coverage was abysmal throughout the apartment, letting the MicroCell’s performance really shine.

Is This for You?

  • You’re a current AT&T postpaid customer?
  • Your home or small office has lousy AT&T coverage inside such that your phone is not really usable?
  • You have reliable broadband Internet connectivity?
  • You can place your MicroCell within a few feet of a window or are willing to buy a 3rd-party GPS antenna?
  • Your family or team has less than 10 AT&T 3G cell phones that you need to cover, and plan to carry on no more than 4 simultaneous conversations?
  • You’re willing to make a 1-time investment of $199.99 to help enhance the AT&T cellular service that many consumers feel they’re already paying for?
  • (For those families who plan to use the MicroCell for heavy call volume, you may consider adding an optional $19.99 / monthly service fee for ‘AT&T Unlimited MicroCell Calling’ to your individual or family plan.)

Signing Off
A one-time investment of $199.99 for the AT&T 3G MicroCell has delivered reliable AT&T cellular coverage throughout the areas of my apartment where AT&T phones previously worked very poorly.  As experiments go, this one is a success.  If you’re struggling with poor indoor performance with your cell phone, perhaps this device or similar offerings from Verizon Wireless and Sprint are worth a look.

Which iPhone?

A friend sent me the following question a couple weeks ago: “We’re on the verge of jumping from dumb phones … to the iPhone.  I know there’s plenty of marketing hype and consumer comparison sites out there talking about the pros/cons of various phone platforms. … Should I wait for the iPhone 4 to come down in price? Should I go with the easy $50 opportunity to get a iPhone 3GS?”

As is the case in most areas where we have choices, the answer of course is, “It depends.”  This is especially true in the world of cell phones, where we have a lot of choices and they’re continually evolving.

Smart vs. Phone
While it’s easy to focus on the ‘smart’ portion of a smartphone – the applications – I tend to focus first on the original purpose: making phone calls.  Making reliable phone calls requires two things: decent cellular coverage and a well-functioning handset.  Of course cellular coverage varies widely based on your proximity to the nearest antenna, topography, and physical barriers such as dense walls.  It’s also been my experience that two different handsets in the same location on the same network can deliver noticeably different results.  So, we have to choose the network that’s best for our location and needs, as well as a reliable handset that uses the network effectively.

The Network(s)
Here in the United States, there is a long list of cellular carriers, however there are really only four that could be considered nation-wide networks: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.  Most of the rest are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) running on top of one of the aforementioned networks.  Depending on where you are or where you plan to travel, even some of the big four may be unavailable.

Where I grew up in Indiana, T-Mobile is non-existent.  I saw my brother-in-law make a call on Sprint’s network while outside once, though he’d never get a connection indoors.  AT&T can work OK indoors, but is somewhat handset-specific, with older 2G (EDGE) phones working better than newer 3G ones.  And Verizon Wireless can be crystal clear indoors and out, depending on the device.  Your locale may or may not similarly limit your choice of cellular networks to just one or two.

Can you hear me now?
You may have heard that as a blanket rule, Verizon Wireless has the superior network in the United States.  It’s used by General Motors for their OnStar services, for example.  However, Verizon isn’t always better, nor are they better with every handset.  I have an interior office at work in southwest Connecticut, where my company-issued Verizon BlackBerry is unreliable to the point that I’d rather never use it.  Conversely, I’ve used a Nokia N8 on AT&T for up to 20 minutes on a single call from my office without issue.  At the risk of thoroughly confusing the situation, I’ve also seen a person struggle to maintain calls from my office on an iPhone 3 on AT&T while my boss recently switched to an iPhone 4 on Verizon that worked fine in one test call that I made a couple of weeks ago.  It can start to feel like you have to discover a magic combination of network and cell phone that work together in your setting.  It always helps to solicit feedback from nearby peers as to what they’re currently using and whether or not they’re satisfied with it.

Abroad
There’s one other important distinction between cellular providers.  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM technology similar to, though at slightly different frequencies, as most other countries throughout the world.  AT&T likes to say that you can “Stay connected while traveling to more than 220 countries and on more than 140 cruise ships, and access email and the Internet in more than 195 countries.”  Verizon Wireless and Sprint use CDMA technology, effectively limiting your use to the North America and a much smaller set of other countries.  While both Verizon and Sprint offer some dual-mode phones that will roam on GSM when outside of a CDMA country, the current iPhone 4 offered by Verizon is not one of them.  If European travel is in your future, an iPhone on AT&T will work on your trip while the phone from Verizon becomes a paperweight.  This may not be the case with future editions.

[Less than 24 hours after posting this, I’m reading a rumor that the iPhone 4S may support both CDMA and GSM networks in a single device.]

Enhancing Your Local Signal
If you’re interested in using a cellular network that generally has good coverage but happens to have poor coverage inside your home, three of the big four carriers now offer reasonably-priced femtocells.  Think of a femtocell as your own personal cellular repeater in your living room, that leverages your broadband Internet connection to backhaul phone calls to your carrier’s network.  These devices are marketed under various names such as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender and the Sprint AIRAVE.  I just deployed an AT&T 3G MicroCell at home over the Memorial Day weekend, and one of my IT peers is looking into the Verizon Wireless Network Extender for several of our offices.

Another Reception Technique
We all likely heard of ‘antennagate’ in the wake of Apple’s iPhone 4 release.  This referred to a phenomenon where the iPhone’s signal strength would fall off – sometimes dramatically – when the phone was held in the hand in a particular way.  Apple’s response was to reprogram the algorithm behind the signal strength display and to hand out free ‘bumpers’ to encase the phone’s metal antenna band in an insulating layer.  Steve Jobs also noted, correctly, that the iPhone isn’t the only phone that loses signal strength when held in the hand.

Plantronics Discovery 925 Bluetooth EarpieceI typically fire up a Plantronics Discovery 925 bluetooth earpiece when I’m making calls from a fringe reception area.  This allows me to leave my phone lying down, sometimes near a window, while walking around carrying on a conversation.  My phone’s limited reception in that particular area isn’t further degraded by my holding it.

iPhone 3GS vs 4
Transitioning into an iPhone discussion, the original question asked whether a $49 iPhone 3GS with 8 GB of flash memory was worth considering as an alternative to the $199 iPhone 4 with 16 GB.  We should note that the iPhone 3GS is offered only by AT&T, so that will have to be your network of choice if you are to make this selection.  Rather than limit our thinking to the initial cost of acquiring the phone, let’s consider the total 2-year cost between the two.  A hypothetical 2-year contract from AT&T featuring 450 rollover minutes, 2 GB of data per month and unlimited text messaging is going to cost $89.99 /month plus taxes and fees.  Adding together the cost of the initial phone, a one-time activation fee of $36.00, and two years of service, that iPhone 3GS will cost you $2,244.76  (plus tax) while the iPhone 4 will cost $2394.76.  That’s a distinction of 6.2 % over the life of the contract.  For my money, I’d pay the extra 6.2% for the latest phone with twice as much flash memory.

iPhone 4, AT&T, Verizon, White, Black
As noted previously, the iPhone 4 is of course available via AT&T or Verizon Wireless.  If you’ve already made a decision about which network is right for you, then you’ve still got a few remaining choices.  Do you want 16 GB of flash memory, or 32 GB for an extra $100.  (That’s only another 4% over the life of our earlier hypothetical 2-year contract.)  Do you want a black phone or the recently-release white version, which will put you in a relatively exclusive club for at least the next few weeks?

Android Alternative?
So far we’ve conveniently ignored the largest-selling smartphone platform of all – Google’s Android OS – which accounted for 36% of all smartphone sales in Q1 2011 according to Gartner.  By contrast, Apple’s iOS platform accounted for 16.8% of smartphone sales in Q1, behind 2nd-place Nokia.  As someone who regularly uses Linux at home, one might expect that I’d lean toward Android, which uses a Linux kernel.  On the contrary, I feel like Android is fairly fragmented at this time, with no consistent operating system updates or security patches from one handset and carrier to the next.  On the other hand, users who prefer the maximum flexibility may be well advised to look at Android.

One Opinion
White iPhone 4When I began answering my friends question, I stated, “It depends.”  It’s probably fitting to end with what I’d choose, were I making the choice today.  In relative civilization here in the East, I’d probably start by picking AT&T for the simple fact that all of their higher-end phones will roam globally.  While I’m far from affluent when compared to some in Connecticut, I’m also single.  A plane ticket for one from, say, New York to London, could conceivably be well within my means at some point during the life of the phone contract.  It doesn’t hurt to dream, nor to keep my passport current.

Next, I’d go with the iPhone 4 for it’s broad ecosystem of apps on a consistent, well supported platform.  I’d go with a white one, not because my vehicle and furniture are all white, but due to a particular idiosyncrasy within my personality.  When a large enough crowd runs in one direction, I sometimes want to run the other.  While strictly a cosmetic difference, going white is about the only way to be different with an iPhone at the moment.  [Photo courtesy of Apple.]

Finally, I’d go with the 16 GB model versus the 32, as I still want to use my phone as a phone and not run the battery down while watching feature-length movies.

[Update: On June 14th I put my money where my mouth is and purchased this exact phone.  So far, so good.]

Now It’s Your Turn
Given the many options and personal motivations behind selecting a phone, I’d expect each of us to reach a slightly different conclusion.  Thankfully we’ve got some compelling options to choose from.