Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Repeaters

May 2011

By Mike Gould

From the Department of Redundancy Department (as the Firesign Theater would have termed it).

I now live down a dirt road. Pot holes, permanently dirty car, and peace and quiet (except for that blasted/blasting woodpecker). "Down a dirt road" is also an old computer term: it means you have a slow network connection. This used to be because your provider hadn't yet broadened your band with modern mojo, probably because you didn't live in a city where such new-fangled services existed. Fortunately, I don't have that problem. The Comcast fairy has dusted our new place with the magic of high-speed internet and I can continue my biz of web work unabated.

There is, of course, still a digital divide; people farther out in the country than we are continue to suffer from slow to non-existent connectivity. But we are lucky in that we are solidly connected. For data, but not for voice and that is the gist of our story here, as we are in a dreaded (cue the thunder and scary voice) Dead Zone when it comes to cell phone behaviors.

When Good Phones Go Missing
We have all experienced it at one time or another: Can you hear me now? No. As extensive as our national cell phone service is, there are still places where you are far enough away from a cell tower that the signal just can't make it that final mile to your phone. Or maybe you are in a dip or "holler" (as we country folk say) and the signal passes clean overhead, missing your newly-renovated basement office where you are desperately trying to stay in voice contact with your clients.

That was my situation. I can get maybe one bar out on my deck, and if I hike up the driveway I can get two bars, but this is a challenge in the middle of March and not the way I like to do business. Inside the house was no bars and in the basement, negative bars, like the entire existence of cellular was being sucked away by a sinister force.

Now I should say this particular instance is an AT&T problem, as I have an iPhone 4G which requires the special flavor of cellular sold by our friends with the globular logo. But obviously, it is a problem also faced by Verizon, Sprint, and every other cell company out there. Until we are graced with radically new technology, or a cell pole in every backyard, we are going to have problems in certain areas with telephony over towers.

And remember that cell phones are still relatively new; they have only been around since the 1983 (the birth of the Motorola Dyna TAC, AKA "The Brick", which weighed in at 2.5 lbs. and cost around $4K). Remember what cars were like at 38 years - we are in the rumble seat era, here, and some things are still shaking loose. Like the exhaust system in my car after a month driving down this dirt road, but I digress.

Cellular Biology
Anyway, new house, no phone, what to do? Get a repeater, that's what.

Your classical repeater is something that picks up a weak signal and amplifies it, "repeating" it at a stronger level. This is what they have at the bottom of the ocean to keep the signals flowing along undersea cables. My repeater is an AT&T device, and it works a bit differently. (Again, I'm reporting from experience here; Verizon has repeaters of various sorts for their services, as do the other cell companies and various third parties.)

I had read from various sources on the web that my problem was pretty common, that AT&T had come up with a solution, and, in some cases, were giving it away gratis to customers in problem areas. In early February I dropped in at one AT&T office, and was told that yes, they had a box for that, and no, not free, $200 please. Oh wait, we'll give it to you for half price, since you live in a problem area. I demurred, and vowed to look into it further once I had moved.

Once re-located, the problem was more critical so I visited an AT&T store closer to my new home, explained that I was in a Zero Zone, and voila, a free, oddly-shaped device was mine: the mighty MicroCell. (Thanks to Matt and Paul at the Washtenaw AT&T store for smoothing the way for me. They actually recognized me from my BizMo photo!)

How it Works
Here is where it gets clever on AT&T's part: this is actually a Voice over IP (VoIP) device. (See my earlier article on VOIP at: http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.94.shtml.) It hooks into your broadband connection, picks up your cell signal, and sends it down Comcast's wire to an AT&T mothership somewhere where it hooks back into the phone system. There are conditions: you have to have at least a 3G phone, a broadband connection, and an AT&T account (obviously). And you need the upside-down Y-shaped MicroCell, which acts much like your own personal cell tower.

Setting it up is interesting. It has a powerful need to know where you are, so you have to place it close to a window so it can chat with GPS satellites. Then you need to register your phone online with AT&T, along with all the other 3G phones in your household. This means that visitors to your house won't be able to use the device until you register them as well, and they have to be using an AT&T 3G device.

If you have a similar problem, I would advise contacting your cell provider. A store visit is a good idea, and have a chat with someone who is knowledgeable about dead zones. There are a wide variety of opinions on various web forums regarding this - some people can't get it to work, others love it. All I can say is that it works for me. I get three bars in the basement and four in the rest of the house, so I am a happy webmaster.

Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of the FacTotem constellation, builds lasers into lunchboxen, performs with the Illuminatus Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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