In a previous entry, I talked about AT&T’s plan to make microcell (a.k.a. femotcell) technology available to their subscribers. From their CES presentation, it looks like a company named MagicJack has beat them to it. You may recognize the MagicJack name from those low-budget late night commercials. They have a product that plugs into your USB port, and provides a standard RJ45 jack to make VoIP calls, for $20 / month, free for the first year. Despite the cheesy commercials, it’s a decent product, so says Consumer Reports.

Now their are releasing something similar, but for GSM mobile networks. Plug in their USB device and install some software, and you have a mini cell tower in your house. Their product will route your GSM calls through VoIP bypassing your carrier’s network. It will cost the same price as the original MagicJack. Don’t ask me how they are allowed to do this. Isn’t it illegal to co-opt any frequency of the radio spectrum for your own purposes?

What prevents me from connecting to an arbitrary MagicJack femotcell without my knowledge? Can it be restricted to particular GSM devices? If I own the MagicJack, I don’t want to be clogging my network with my neighbor’s GSM traffic. If my neighbor has one, I don’t want my calls going through their unsecured network, not to mention that the quality, and availability of the network is completely out of my control and unsupported. Can you imagine the support nightmare that would make for carriers when they can no longer tell if a user is connected to their network or an arbitrary unregulated femtocell somewhere?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The idea that anyone with an internet connection and a computer can create a cell tower is intriguing to say the least.

AT&T’s 3g Microcell Scam


AT&T is beta testing what they call a 3g Microcell in select markets. In a nutshell, this is a mini, personal cell tower for your home. It bridges a local 3g router with your existing broadband connection. When available in your market, the microcell is available to AT&T wireless customer at an additional fee. It can blanket 5,00 square feet with a strong signal (probably under optimal conditions, not in a city). It is locked to your phones only. You must have a 3g phone. Engadget has a more detailed write up.

Let me make sure you understand. For the privilege of having a usable wireless signal in / around your home, you can pay AT&T an additional charge. This is on top of the $80+ you are already paying for your wireless plan. Along with that, AT&T also gets to use your pipe, not theirs, to provide you the signal. The pipe you are already paying for to them (via AT&T DSL) or some other broadband provider, on top of the $80, on top of the charge for the Microcell.

Depending on the additional microcell charge, this is somewhere between a bad insult and rape. I expect to have a usable wireless phone service for $80 / month. I’m certainly open to working outside the box to make it better, but I shouldn’t have to pay an additional charge. If anything, AT&T should provide a kickback to microcell users, as it is using the microcell host’s broadband pipe and not further clogging AT&T’s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that microcell users would be connected to their microcell more than any other cell “tower”, possibly with the exception of their employer’s locale (and it makes sense for businesses to have microcells of their own anyway). That means that the microcell is diverting large percentage of traffic that would otherwise be filling up AT&T’s pipes.

Here’s how AT&T should make use of microcell technology. In areas where many users report spotty service, AT&T should contact customers and offer them free microcells. The microcell host should get some discount just for using the microcell for their own purposes. Additionally, if the user agrees, they can share some configurable portion of their broadband and make it available through the microcell for surrounding customers. The microcell host should get a discount proportional to how much service they provide, proportional to the load they take off AT&T’s pipes. AT&T should make larger-scale microcells available to businesses (millicells?).

At even a small monthly discount, AT&T would have more volunteers than they would know what to do with. In densely populated areas, this would be a godsend for them.

This idea does complicate deployment to some degree. The microcell needs to monitor and throttle bandwidth and connections, and reject connections when the limit is reached. For discounts, it needs to track and upload usage back to AT&T. These are not hard problems by any means. I also wonder how broadband providers would feel about AT&T offloading traffic onto their networks without providing any compensation.