Maybe AT&T isn't as implacable as I'd thought.
In a venting of the spleen I wrote in March, I argued that AT&T should buy you a free femtocell if you're having troubles connecting to the company's 3G mobile phone network.
Then on Saturday, Engadget reported one AT&T customer got just what I sought. AT&T sent the customer a letter that he could collect one at the local AT&T store, but told Engadget it was only a market trial.
For background, a femtocell is a small radio transceiver that plugs into your broadband network connection so you needn't rely on that feeble signal from a central cell phone tower. Ordinarily, AT&T sells its version of the product, called the Microcell, for $150.
Props to AT&T for testing the waters for free femtocells. Presumably the company has got some data about just which cell towers are most overloaded and which nearby customers particularly suffer dropped calls, so perhaps judicious allocation of freebies could ease its woes and restore its reputation a bit.
Look at it this way: In giving a femtocell away, AT&T of course adds a new expense and, for some small fraction of customers who might buy a femtocell, cuts off a revenue stream. But the cost--and you can bet AT&T doesn't pay the full $150 retail price for the hardware--doesn't have to be money squandered.
How much does it cost AT&T to mollify irate customers who harangue customer support representatives? How much extra does wooing a new customer cost in the face of the bad reputation earned by griping iPhone users? How much customer churn could be avoided if squeaky wheels were oiled and those with subscribers didn't dump AT&T the moment their two-year contracts finished?
Sending out femtocell freebies ain't cheap, but maybe it's a worthy investment.
Update at 1:55 a.m. PDT July 13: A CNET reader who got a similar letter on Saturday (see image below, with identifying information redacted) took AT&T up on its offer--although AT&T store staff initially hadn't heard of the offer when asked to confirm its legitimacy, and the first store visited had no Microcells in stock.
Apparently others have received similar letters. At the second store, the reader said, "they'd had quite a few calls like mine--'Is this genuine?' 'Are there any catches?'" After installing the femtocell and waiting for it to sync with the GPS system for e-911 support, all is well:
"Max bars in the whole house," the reader said. "Maybe I should advertise as a cell tower for the neighbors and pick up some side money. It does allow you to selectively add other AT&T phones, after all."
It's not clear why the reader got the offer. "I have no hard facts to go on. I have used the 'Mark The Spot' app quite a bit as I seem to be in an odd corner of cell reception. I also had actually quit AT&T at one time and changed my mind a couple weeks later. That's all that makes me stand out," the reader said.
"It is a really nice thing that AT&T has done--great PR and image control," the reader added. "But what about the people that had bought the Microcells even as late as Friday? I bet there will be a hot time in the old front office with the people marching around the AT&T headquarters with torches like something out of 'Young Frankenstein.'"
Another reader who didn't get the free femtocell offer, Anthony DeMaio, is interested in the technology even if it's not entirely free. He said he plans to buy the Microcell with AT&T's $150 rebate that comes with a $20-per-month unlimited talk and data plan with the femtocell.
"It seems like $20 a month is not too bad when you're making calls at home, seeing as most people use their cell phones as a primary contact nowadays," DeMaio said. "So I plan to get rid of my home phone bill (about $45 a month) and use the Microcell with my mobile number instead. That way I save $25 a month!"