AT&T May Give Away MicroCells for Weakly Covered Homes

AT&T may be getting ready to systematically give away its 3G MicroCell indoor base stations to some subscribers who are likely to have very poor coverage in their homes.

The MicroCell is AT&T's name for its femtocell, a small cellular base station designed for use in a home to improve the signal there. Femtocells use local broadband connections such as cable or DSL (digital subscriber line) for backhaul to the Internet. They can reduce the traffic on a carrier's own cell towers and backhaul lines as well as improve the user's experience.

On Sunday, AT&T will begin mailing coupons for free Microcells to the 7.5 percent of its mobile subscribers who are most likely to have very limited AT&T coverage in their homes, according to a Friday report by Engadget. The report includes what appears to be an internal AT&T message about the upcoming offer. The deal would be open only to customers who received the coupon and would require a "verbal" commitment to keep AT&T service for one year, the message said.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel declined to comment on future offers but said the carrier has experimented in the past with offering the devices free of charge. AT&T announced in April that it would begin a national rollout of the devices after trials in several states. Pricing the MicroCell at US$149.99, AT&T said it would offer a $100 mail-in rebate on the device and an additional $50 mail-in rebate to customers signing up for a new DSL plan with at least 1.5M bps (bits per second).

The MicroCell is intended specifically for subscribers who get very little or no signal in their homes, Siegel said.

"It is a product with a very narrowly defined use. We don't mass-market it," Siegel said.

AT&T has been offering the MicroCell to customers based on their own reports of weak indoor signals, and an AT&T store employee might recommend it based partly on information from the carrier's coverage map, Siegel said. The MicroCell is only available in markets served by AT&T, he said.

Other U.S. mobile operators are also adding femtocells to their offerings. Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless have already offered femtocells for their voice networks, and last August Sprint quietly launched one for its 3G data network as well. Verizon said at the time that it would have a 3G femtocell within the next few months.

Giving away femtocells would be a good idea for AT&T, because they can help both consumers and carriers, said Mobiletrax analyst Gerry Purdy. He expects to see more such devices in the future, including home gateways that may include cellular, Wi-Fi, mobile digital TV and other types of wireless capability.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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