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!”

BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone

BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone Paired With an iPhone 5s

BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone Paired With an iPhone 5s


 
These days it’s not uncommon to see a business professional using their cell phone as their primary or only phone number.  This is particularly true with traveling consultants.  And while I work in the same office every day, for the past two years I too have chosen to list my cell phone number as my only number on my business cards and in my signature block on outgoing e-mail.

Despite my relatively analytical mindset and preference to avoid small talk, I somehow end up talking on the phone a lot.  AT&T reports that I racked up 15,176 voice minutes on my aging iPhone 4 in the past twelve months.  If converted to 8-hour business days, this represents 31.6 days spent on the phone out of roughly 260 business days per year.  Thank goodness for unlimited talk and text.

The transition from a traditional business desk phone to cell phone was made practical in my case largely by another device similar to the one we’ll talk about today.  That other device, the iFusion SmartStation (reviewed here), gives my iPhone 4 a traditional telephone handset and speakerphone whenever I’m at my desk.  Having that traditional handset linked to my cell phone has allowed me to participate in long conference calls or troubleshooting sessions without tying up one hand, or having to crane my neck at a particularly awkward angle to sandwich a thin cell phone between my shoulder and my ear.  Given the amount of time I spend talking, I also take comfort in knowing that my cell phone isn’t directly irradiating my head.  And while the first-generation iFusion works great with iPhones up through the 4s, what about everyone else?  What if you want the ergonomics of a business desktop phone while using your Android phone, Windows Phone or BlackBerry?

The Answer
It turns out that the answer has been lurking in the land down under since 2010.  The “Australian designed and developed” BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone, pictured above, looks at first glance like a no-frills business desk phone of the sort that blends in with the monitors and other gear on your desk, to be mostly ignored except when it’s ringing.  The distinction, as its name implies, is that this handset pairs with your mobile phone via Bluetooth in order to make and receive calls.

Initial Setup
After a one-time pairing exercise explained in the manual, I also enabled ‘Auto connect’ so that the BlueSIM will try to reconnect with my phone every half minute when I’m away, anticipating my return.  The display actually says “iPhone” when I’m connected, and “Auto connect” when my iPhone and I have left the vicinity.  The BlueSIM can be paired with up to eight devices, though with only one active connection at a time.

First Time Use
Dialing calls via the BlueSIM is a matter of punching in the ten digit number, and then picking up the handset or pressing the speakerphone button to initiate the call.  I made my first outbound call to my favorite sister, who indicated that the call sounded crystal clear on her end.  I found the volume to be a little low on my side, until I rotated the silver scroll wheel to raise it to comfortable level.  The phone kept my desired volume level on subsequent calls.  When initiating outbound calls from the BlueSIM, the paired iPhone doesn’t light up at all, conserving energy.  Both the BlueSIM and the iPhone light up and ring on inbound calls.  My first half-hour long call was a complete success as well, with no issues to report.

Accessories
The BlueSIM has a jack for a wired RJ11 corded headset of the of the type that call center employees might use.  Though I’m thinking that frequent headset users might just get a Jawbone or similar and skip the BlueSIM altogether.  The regular coiled handset cord that comes with the BlueSIM is perhaps not as long as would be ideal, but that could be replaced for around $10 locally.

Aesthetics
While the appearance of a phone is far from the most important thing, most of us are visually oriented enough to consider it.  The finish of the BlueSIM is, well, blueish, when compared to something that’s a true black.  The BlueSIM also has a bit of surface texture, which, while not uncommon, isn’t glossy smooth like some phones.  The handset feels solid enough, in a practical though non-luxury sense.  The button travel feels just a little bit long, especially on the number keys, but they’re easy to use.  And the LCD display, while highly readable, feels a little dated compared to the devices that you’re likely to sync with it.  Were this a standard telephone for use with plain old telephone service, you would expect it to cost no more than half the price.  The premium is justified only by the relative uniqueness of this Bluetooth pairing solution.

Cost And Purchasing
There’s no electronic shopping cart on the BlueSIM web site at this time.  So I reached out via e-mail to sales@bluesim.com.au in late December.  After exchanging a couple of messages, I received a PayPal invoice for the list price of $299.00 AUD, or $273.86 US at that day’s exchange rate.  There’s no shipping or tax added to US orders, despite the fact that the AirMail charge turned out to be a relatively hefty $56.55 AUD, representing 18.9% of the overall cost.  My BlueSIM was shipped shortly after the New Year, and arrived at my office in Connecticut ten days later.

Power
It’s easy for Americans to assume that the world revolves around us, but these days that’s often not the case.  The BlueSIM’s AC power adapter says that it supports 100 to 240 volts, but it bears Australia’s native AS3112 plug and includes no adapters for use in the US or Europe.  I needed an AS3112 receptacle to NEMA 5-15P adapter like this or this.  Since I was taken by surprise, I went with the one that I could get shipped in the next day.  Americans who order a BlueSIM should order the requisite power adapter from Amazon the same day, and you’ll be all set when your phone arrives.  The BlueSIM also has a space for a 9-Volt battery, which may run the device for an unspecified length of time.

Conclusion
The BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone combines a business desk phone experience with your modern Bluetooth-enabled smartphone whenever the two are in proximity to one another, without regard to your phone’s vendor or your telecom carrier.  While relatively expensive at $299.00 AUD, this tool makes it easier to live with a single phone and phone number, when regularly transitioning between your desk and on-the-go.  For some, the simplicity or the reduced cost as compared to maintaining two types of phone service over the long term may make the BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone an appealing accessory.
 
 
[In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, this article was inspired by an employee of our Federal Government who subscribes to the blog, and who, in fact, originally suggested adding the ‘Subscribe’ box that you see on the blog today.]

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.

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.

The iFusion SmartStation

iFusion SmartStation

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The AT&T 3G MicroCell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the 3G MicroCell to Your Home Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This for You?

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

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

Which iPhone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.