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.

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 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.

Get a 212 Number in 2011

If you’ve ever spent so much as an afternoon walking around Manhattan, then you’re no doubt familiar with the 212 area code.  This area code was originally assigned to all of New York City in 1947 and later confined to the borough of Manhattan prior to the eventual use of overlay area codes.  Every long-established business in the city with a phone number posted out front has one that begins with 212.  While the most logical among us might argue that a number is just a number, many more will allow that 212 carries a level of credibility or cache the way few other area codes can.  Perhaps the 310 on the west side of Los Angeles and the 312 in downtown Chicago come in a close second and third respectively.

Pop Culture
If you’re from somewhere else and grew up during the Seinfeld era as I did, you too may have first become aware of the 212 area code while watching a Season 9 episode titled The Maid.  Kramer signs up to have restaurant menus faxed daily to Elaine’s apartment despite her not having a fax machine, creating an annoyance that forces Elaine to get a new phone number.  Elaine’s new number is part of the overlay area code 646.  Elaine is further frustrated when a guy to whom she hands out her number assumes that she’s from somewhere else, like New Jersey.  She finally resolves the issue by taking the 212 number of a deceased neighbor, Mrs. Krantz, leading to further comedy when the deceased woman’s grandson keeps calling.

Back to Reality
Nearly 13 years after that classic series wrapped, one might assume that it’s next to impossible for all but the largest corporations or the most well-connected individuals to land a new 212 number for business or personal use.  Relax.  If you want a 212 number, they’re still available at the time of this writing, at a reasonable cost, and the process could hardly be simpler.  I purchased mine in January, in part to try out a well-known Internet reseller of 212 numbers.

The Service
David Day’s 212areacode.com offers three tiers of 212 phone numbers for sale – categorized as personal, business and exclusive.  The personal numbers start at $50 at the time of this writing, while numbers that are subjectively more attractive for business start at $75, and finally those numbers deemed exclusive start at $250.  Having arrived at the service with a healthy level of skepticism, I went with a number in the least-expensive, i.e., personal class.

Getting Started
The process was surprisingly easy.  Immediately after navigating to 212areacode.com and purchasing the number, I received an e-mail receipt thanking me for my purchase.  Two days later, I received an assistance sheet describing the phone number porting process and providing additional information.  It was now up to me to port the number to the carrier of my choice.

Porting the Number
As this was still an experiment of sorts, I didn’t want to invest in a new phone until I could confirm that I was able to port the number to my own account successfully.  I pulled an older but still-functional AT&T Wireless Motorola RAZR V3 out of a drawer.  AT&T’s web site indicates that you can’t port a 212 number to a cell phone in the area where I live, well outside the geographic boundary of Manhattan.  Not taking any chances, I established a PO box at a Midtown Manhattan Post Office just prior to walking into a nearby AT&T Store.  At AT&T, they ran a credit check against my geographic address before setting up the account using the PO box, though they had no issues setting up the new service and porting the number.  I was in and out in 15 minutes with a 212 phone number established and working on my own account with AT&T.  Done.  Easy as that.

Other Porting Options
For those technical readers that are so inclined, 212areacode.com indicates that you can also port 212 numbers to Google Voice provided that your account indicates that it supports porting here.  Any other VoIP phone service that offers phone number porting should be able to handle this as well.

Last Word
All in all, it’s nice when a product or service is reasonably priced and works as advertised.  Feel free to call me at 212-7… well, on second thought, why don’t you post a comment using the link below.