The New T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile USA made news on two fronts this week. For starters, the Un-carrier announced that they’re ditching mobile contracts altogether. No more 2-year lock-in with the purchase of a new phone. No early termination fee for leaving. There’s not even an overage fee if you run past your data plan. And the prices for similar services are cheaper than with rivals Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

Sounds like a plan
T-Mobile’s smartphone plans start at $50 per month for unlimited talk, text and web, with 500 MB of high-speed data. Another $10 will bump you up to 2 GB of high-speed data. Exceed your high-speed data plan, and you’ll be slowed down for the remainder of the month, rather than charged extra. In other words, no surprises. That alone may come as a welcome relief for many of us without deep pockets. You’re unlikely to find a less expensive option than T-Mobile without going to a virtual network operator like Straight Talk.

Phones
Of course there’s still that little matter of buying a new phone on occasion. Here in the US, we’ve long been sucked into the buy now, pay later mentality. And not just with our phones. But the reality is that relatively few of us would pay up front for the latest smartphone at the unsubsidized price of, say, Apple’s $649 iPhone 5. Instead of lumping a phone subsidy into the plan and then charging the increase forever, T-Mobile offers two alternate paths.

You choose
When buying a new phone, you can choose to “pay in full today at checkout.” If that isn’t to your liking, you may pay a specified down-payment and a monthly payment for 24 months. While this may sound a lot like a traditional 2-year contract, there’s a key differentiator. You’ll stop paying for your phone the minute you’ve fulfilled your obligation. The other big carriers will continue to charge you a subsidy indefinitely, whether you buy a new phone every two years or not. Looking at T-Mobile’s site today, the pricing transparency of their current phones is both informative and reassuring.

Speaking of new phones
On Tuesday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced that they’ll begin officially carrying Apple’s iPhone starting April 12th. The flagship iPhone 5 will launch at $99.99, plus 24 monthly payments of $20 each. All told, T-Mobile’s iPhone 5 is about $69 cheaper than buying one unlocked at an Apple Store. It’s been reported that T-Mobile will serve up a modified version of the A1428 iPhone 5 currently produced for AT&T. T-Mobile’s variant should support Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) 1700 MHz spectrum in addition to previously-supported bands. For this reason, anyone buying an iPhone for use with T-Mobile going forward may want to buy theirs from T-Mobile rather than bringing their own. T-Mobile will also be the first US carrier to support the iPhone 5’s HD Voice feature. In short, T-Mobile’s iPhone launch brings every feature that their customers could hope for, save one. The iPhone won’t support T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling that is currently available on many of their other handsets.

But can you… hear me now?
It’s one thing to offer the latest phone hardware at a competitive price, and to offer service that people can afford. Both are important. But at the end of the day, all that is for naught if customers can’t use their phones reliably. The reach and quality of a cellular network is everything. Verizon Wireless has focused on their network for a long time, and as a result, they maintain the largest chunk of US subscribers today. There may still places in the western US where it’s Verizon or nothing. So how does T-Mobile stack up?

The Northeast
Awhile back, I wrote here about porting a number from Google Voice, and happened to choose T-Mobile as my destination. At the time, I was surprised to discover what appeared to be a stronger signal from T-Mobile, both at home and my office here in Connecticut, than I was getting from AT&T. That discovery was an eye-opener, and I wanted to investigate a little further.

I began carrying around a disposable-quality Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone on T-Mobile’s network. After pairing the phone with my truck via Bluetooth, I logged a few long drives (by Connecticut standards) while on the phone continuously. I experienced no dropped calls between Milford and Newington, from Trumbull to Wallingford, and similar trips. Speaking as someone who averages 23 hours of cell phone calling per month, the lack of dropped calls was encouraging.

Then I loaded up the Speedtest.net app for both iOS and Android. I began comparing my iPhone 4 on AT&T to the cheap Android phone on T-Mobile. Neither phone is LTE enabled, of course. (Incidentally, T-Mobile just launched their LTE service in seven cities this week.) My tests were less a comparison of either network’s top performance, and more a test of general network viability. From the slideshow that follows, it’s apparent that T-Mobile works well in the locations that I visited.

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Your Area
OpenSignalWe all know that cellular coverage is an extremely local phenomenon. What works in one town or region may be less viable elsewhere. When considering a wireless company that you don’t have previous experience with, it’s best to seek out as much information as possible. Talk with friends or colleagues in the immediate area about which networks work for them, and which ones don’t.

For those of us who are technically inclined, I recently fired up an Android-only app called OpenSignal. This app crowd-sources the signal strength mapping of the four major cellular networks. You can view coverage maps of any of the four in your area, complete with a NetworkRank seen here at the right. According to OpenTable, Verizon is number one at my home, followed by T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint in that order. Curiously, the OpenSignal web site seems to provide less data than the app, and leaves me with a conflicting impression. So use the app. Forget the web site.

Conclusion
T-Mobile is the nation’s 4th-place network in terms of subscribers. But I find myself rooting for the underdog from time to time. A successful iPhone launch coupled with an unconventional pricing arrangement is potentially a win for all of us. Hopefully the other networks will sit up and take notice. If T-Mobile offers decent coverage in your area, you could certainly do worse than to walk into a T-Mobile store on April 12th. Or any time that you’re in the market for a new phone.

Problems Persist in iOS 6.1.2

In late December, 2012, I posted the saga of narrowing down a set of iPhone / iPad symptoms that periodically manifest themselves and usually arrive hand in hand.  Those symptoms include noticeably diminished battery life, surging 3G/4G data consumption, and devices that run warmer to the touch than normal.  If you’d like my history with this going all the way back to iOS 4.x, click here and then follow a link back to this post when finished with the first.  Today’s post is chapter two of what I hope is only a trilogy.

Quick Recap
When we left off in December, we’d narrowed our iPhone / iPad problems down to runaway interaction between problematic iDevices and my employer’s corporate e-mail server running Microsoft Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2.  These interactions are documented in the Internet Information Server (IIS) logs on our server running Exchange ActiveSync, and are stored by default in our case at c:\WINDOWS\system32\LogFiles\W3SVC1.  While a properly-functioning iPhone may connect to our Exchange server a few hundred times per day, a runaway device will connect up to tens of thousands of times per day.  This excess traffic will continue unabated on an offending device until manual intervention is taken.  If too many devices in an organization are doing this at once, it creates a sort of denial-of-service attack against the Exchange ActiveSync server.

It’s important to note that this issue may affect more than just the Exchange portion of the iOS e-mail client.  I’ve received and observed feedback regarding the client-side symptoms – battery drain, 3G/4G data surge and warm devices – from people connecting to other push e-mail services including Hotmail and iCloud as well.  Of course end-users and business network administrators like myself aren’t privy to what’s happening at the other end of those cloud services.

Since Then
Subsequent to my December post, this iOS / Exchange issue finally reached mainstream consciousness following the release of iOS 6.1.  Apple went as far as issuing a rare acknowledgement that an issue was known to occur when connected to Microsoft Exchange 2010 SP1 or later, and that it is triggered by responding to an exception to a recurring calendar event sent to a Microsoft Exchange account.  Apple said nothing of Exchange 2003 that I am aware of.

Apple Inc.
I talked about and documented several of my interactions with Apple in the December post. I shared my mild frustration in getting past their basic support to the point that they believed that I had a legitimate iOS issue.  On January 9th, 2013, my issue was escalated yet again to a person that I’ve been in fairly regular contact with since.  I provided raw log files at Apple’s request to be forwarded to their engineering team.  And I’ve had nothing but positive interaction with Apple since.  I know from Google Analytics that Apple is familiar with my original blog post.  As I’m writing this follow-up, my little blog has received 39 visits from a network labeled, ‘apple inc.’, another 8 visits from ‘apple inc. – 10g ashburn ide’, and 1 visit from ‘apple computer’ since the original post went live.

iOS 6.1.2
Apple released iOS 6.1.2 on February 19th, 2013.  The update description read in full, “Fixes an Exchange calendar bug that could result in increased network activity and reduced battery life.”  I received a few e-mails from friends as far away as China pointing out that our issue might now be fixed.  Three days later I sent out a memo to our iOS users asking any who had not already done so to upgrade to iOS 6.1.2.

Not Fixed
On Sunday, February 24th, a single CDMA iPhone 5 running iOS 6.1.2, noted in our IIS logs as ‘Apple-iPhone5C2/1002.146’, contacted our Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync server 69,878 times that day.  Keep in mind that there are only 86,400 seconds in a 24-hour period.  By way of comparison, my iPhone 4 checked in 336 times during the same span of time.  Upon discovery, I notified my contact at Apple and sent him the log at his request.

What To Do With Your Runaway iPhone
Since the December post, we’ve learned that fixing runaway iDevices is much simpler than our original course of action, which consisted of wiping them out and setting them up as if they were new.  Neither that action, nor simply deleting and re-adding an Exchange account, seems to be necessary.  In fact, resolving our latest runaway iPhone proved to be as simple as turning off the iPhone’s calendar sync on the Exchange account momentarily, and then turning it back on.
 

On your device, select Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > (your account).  Turn off Calendars and 'Delete from My iPhone.'  Wait a moment, and turn Calendars back on.

On your device, select Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > (your account). Turn off ‘Calendars’ and then ‘Delete from My iPhone.’ Wait a moment, and turn Calendars back on.


 
For Exchange Administrators
Some organizations are taking technical means to bar iPhones running iOS 6.1 through 6.1.2 from contacting their Exchange servers.  If you have a great many iPhones, this step may be absolutely necessary in order to keep your e-mail environment up for everyone else.  At the very least, you should consider alerting all users to stop accepting calendar invitations and updates via their iPhones and iPads.  For those of us with far fewer devices to manage, simply keeping abreast of the server logs and working with affected users may be enough.  As I write this, our IIS log for Saturday is already several times larger than it should be.  It wouldn’t be that difficult to automatically BULK INSERT each day’s log file into a SQL table and then query for the number of connection attempts by each user’s iPhone or iPad per day.  I work with a great DBA who may be called upon to do that for us if Apple doesn’t come out with a fix real soon.

Final Thoughts
While iPhones are wonderful pieces of technology that can do a great many things, there are exactly two functions that every smartphone must do reliably, bar none.  One is to make phone calls.  The other is to handle mobile e-mail, calendaring and contacts.  The fact that the premier device from one of the most well-regarded companies on earth has problems with one of these basic necessities is fairly disconcerting.  One wonders how hard it could possibly be to program in an upper limit to the number of attempts to update a single calendar invitation!?  I’m not yet at the point that I’m going to steer anyone away from the iPhone and iPad.  But I really hope that Apple can get this right in iOS 6.1.3 or soon thereafter.  Before I start giving BlackBerry a second look.

[While I hoped that this issue would ultimately be resolved by iOS 7, we’ve now seen this behavior in iOS 7 and 7.0.2 as well.  Follow this link to the next post.]

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.]

Get Paid With Square

By now, many are at least casually familiar with Square, the startup company whose credit card reader and user-friendly software enable any small business or individual in the United States to accept credit card payments anytime and anywhere on their iPhone, iPad and Android phones.  While Square is currently making great strides, processing a reported $4 Million in credit card payments per day in June, founder Jack Dorsey is no stranger to innovation.  He also created Twitter.  And he gets around, having recently sat down with President Obama for the first Twitter Town Hall.  Square Inc. recently secured $100 million in Series C financing led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, based on a valuation of more than $1 billion.  It’s high time that we take a closer look at Square from a technical standpoint here.

What is Square?
Square’s most visible product is their square-shaped credit card reader attachment that plugs into the headphone jack of an iPhone, iPad or Android phone.  The Square readers are free via the web, and can be purchased for $9.95 at an Apple Store.  Naturally, Square provides accompanying software for those mobile platforms as well.  Finally, in collaboration with Chase, Square provides the credit card transaction processing and payment.  Square’s simplicity extends through their card reader and software all the way to their service fees.  Square charges merchants 2.75% of every swiped Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover transaction.  (Manual entry is allowed for situations where a card can’t be swiped, however service fees for those entries will cost 3.5% + 15¢ per transaction.)  At 2.75% of every swiped transaction, many established merchants discover that they’re money ahead with Square versus a competitor who may have a monthly fee and a flat fee per transaction on top of their own percentage fee.

[Image courtesy of Square.]

What Square is Not
Having shown the Square device to several people in the past week, the most frequent initial misconception is that the reader is for individuals to swipe their own credit card when making online purchases from a retailer such as Amazon.com.  While it would be nice to not have to key in your credit card number on a web site, saving a few seconds by swiping wouldn’t necessarily be groundbreaking.  Again, the reader, software and service are for individuals and small businesses to accept credit card payments from their customers.

Initial Setup
As I’m the type who prefers to set up an account first via a real computer rather than on my iPhone, I began with a visit to https://squareup.com.  You can also download the Square app to your mobile device and sign up from there.  At the time of this writing, visitors to squareup.com are prompted with the opportunity to set up a new account for free from the home page.

  1. I began by providing my e-mail address and a desired password, before moving on to provide my name, current address, social security number and other personal details to verify my identity.  Square provides the same level of scrutiny as a typical online credit application, asking multiple-choice trivia questions from your credit history to validate your identity.  It’s unlikely that you could establish an account using a fabricated identity or steal that of a real person.
  2. Next, Square alerted me that they would be sending a free credit card reader.
  3. I was then presented with an option to send a text link to my iPhone to download the Square app.
  4. Though optional, I linked my personal checking account to my Square account to receive payments.
  5. I provided a PO box address as my ‘receipt address’ that any customers would see.  If you are a freelancer selling items or services while on the go, you may wish to specify a PO box as your receipt address so as to avoid providing strangers the location of your personal residence.
  6. Before signing out of the web site, I added the snnyc blog icon as my logo.
  7. Finally, I used the text link on my iPhone to install the software.  I promptly signed in to my account to confirm that it was working.  Afterward, I was left to wait patiently until my free reader device arrived.

Using The Reader (AKA, The Fun Part)
My Square reader arrived in my mailbox four business days later, having been shipped from California to the East Coast.  There was no mistaking from the outside what I’d find folded neatly within the 5 by 8 inch envelope.  Opening Square’s package delivers a decent presentation experience – especially considering the free pricetag – with the device encapsulated in the center of a foam block wrapped by paper wings providing additional information.  Square even throws in a window sticker with the Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover logos, similar to what you’ve seen in every merchant’s window that accepts credit cards.

After pulling my Square reader out of the package, I plugged it into the headphone jack of my color-coordinated white iPhone 4 and and fired up the software.  The following is my first sample transaction.

  1. I specified the amount of my sample transaction at $25.  I typed in a description for the product as ‘Square Evaluation.’  And then I swiped an American Express Gift Card to continue.
  2. The prior screen faded to gray and ‘Authorizing’ appeared for less than 30 seconds.
  3. Next, I was prompted to sign for my transaction using my finger.  While I anticipated that this might be impractical, my signature came came out about as well as it does on many in-store credit card terminals.
  4. After signing, I was prompted with the opportunity to receive a receipt via SMS or e-mail.  (The e-mailed receipts look better.)
  5. Finally, I was presented with a ‘thank you’ screen.

After a transaction has been completed, the Square merchant receives an e-mail indicating the transaction amount and the total balance in the merchant’s Square account.  On the earlier sample transaction, I received $24.31 based on a transaction of $25.00.  Merchants can later review their recent transactions from the Square app or the web site at any time.


Transfer to Bank
Because I’d earlier linked my Square account to my Citibank checking account, my first two trial transactions were transferred to my account around two business days following my scans.  Going forward, Square transactions are deposited to my checking account on the following day.  It takes my bank another day or two to credit the deposits to my account.

Not The Only Game in Town
VeriFone, a well-known provider of electronic payment solutions, announced PAYware Mobile for iPhone in February, 2010, around the same time as Square.  For a cost breakdown between Square and VeriFone, see the FeeFighters interactive calculator.  As you’ll see from that tool, VeriFone offers a more complex series of fees that may be cheaper or more expensive than Square depending on the size and volume of your transactions.  Generally speaking, small transactions cost less with Square while very large transactions cost less with VeriFone.  Intuit has since jumped into the game as well with GoPayment, undercutting Square’s pricing model by 0.05% percent at the time of this writing.

Fraud Concerns?
As there’s more than one method of fraud, different audiences will likely have different concerns about it.  One part-time merchant to whom I demonstrated Square immediately asked about the potential for chargebacks.  She feared the idea of selling her merchandise to a stranger and accepting credit card payment, only to later have the payment reversed after the person was long gone with the merchandise.  This is a legitimate concern, as merchants may be charged back for any fraudulent Square transactions, just as they would from other credit card payment systems.  Some businesses factor in this risk as part of the cost of doing business, while others try to reduce the risk by other means such as asking for a photo ID.

Fraud concerns go both ways, with potential customers worrying that a merchant could rip them off as well.  Somehow we put this fear aside every time we hand our credit card to a waiter at a restaurant, but we’re far more conscious of it in other circumstances.  VeriFone has been on something of a kick trying to call attention to a perceived security problem with Square, namely that data is not encrypted between the Square reader itself and the phone that it is plugged into.  (Data is encrypted between the Square application and the Internet-based processing servers.)  From VeriFone’s perspective, the unencrypted link between Square’s reader and a phone could allow a malicious merchant to write a counterfeit Square application that surreptitiously steals the data of customers whose cards are swiped.  VeriFone fails to mention that many credit card swipes built into PC keyboards and point-of-sale terminals similarly don’t encrypt data between the card swipe and the computer itself, and are subject to the same hypothetical scenario and others.  As a security-minded consumer and professional, it would be easier for me to give VeriFone’s view more credence if their focus on and rebuttal of Square didn’t strike me as particularly self-serving.

Spur New Business?
One recurring theme that I heard when showing off the Square to my salaried peers was, “Now we need to think of a sideline business where we can make use of this.”  There’s something about Square’s dramatic simplification of credit card payment processing that really strikes a chord when witnessed firsthand.  When it’s this easy, we all want to be merchants.

The Bottom Line
The ease and low cost of deploying Square are second to none.  You can get started today with no financial investment and only a few minutes of your time.  You’ll pay a consistent 2.75% of every swiped transaction going forward.  The terms are fair.  The ease of use, combined with the ultimate mobility, may spur you on to business ideas that you haven’t considered yet.  Taken as a whole, Square offers a compelling proposition.  Whether you ultimately go with Square or a similar competitor, this type of service may well be the future of payment processing for as long as we still use plastic cards.

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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.