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The snowblower really is her second choice
November 24, 2009 11:12 AM   Subscribe

My wife would love an iPhone for Christmas. She totally deserves one, too, but AT&T coverage at our house is nonexistent. What should I do?

We live on a peninsula near a very small airport on Long Island Sound in Connecticut. The poor coverage could be a total lack of infrastructure, or maybe it's because the tower is lower than normal due to the airport. My Verizon Blackberry will sometimes think I'm on Long Island.

When my mother visited for a week with her non-iPhone 3G handset, she got no signal the entire time she was in our house. Friends with iPhones have had a similar experience. It's conceivable there's a corner where she could get one bar, but we haven't found it.

We currently have out-of-contract Verizon phones that work tolerably at home. If it's a more than 30 second conversation we will use the home phone, but at least when someone calls, we hear a ring 75% of the time. That said, she is not interested in a Droid phone or anything other than the real deal from Apple. She has a Blackberry and will want to continue to use whatever she gets for her primary email account.

She actually doesn't care if she doesn't have good cell phone coverage at home, but I do and will be annoyed if I have to call two numbers to reach her. Plus, I'll want to get an AT&T phone for myself and want it to work at home. We have and will continue to have a land line. We've moved recently and plan to get new numbers with any new service.

So is there any solution? Ideas I've had:

1) Is there any iPhone application or setting that would do something like "If I'm on $home_wifi, forward all calls to $home_number."? This would be *perfect* but I suspect isn't possible.

2) Would an external or roof antenna help? What do they cost and how difficult are they to set up?

3) What's up with the AT&T Femtocell? Will it ever be available in CT (even though I find the idea of paying extra for basic coverage so distasteful) ?

4) We both have Google Voice accounts, could this be used to *automatically* route an incoming call in a helpful (eg, location-based) manner?

To summarize: Is there a simple, automatic way to make an iPhone worthwhile when there's no AT&T coverage at your home? Or should I just get her the snowblower that's her second choice?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed to Technology (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
The femtocell is the best option I suppose. There's no "hard" reason you can't install one - it's a question of sales & support and them rolling it out to make sure it's working before they scale up.

Second best would be to use Google Voice and have the number ring your cell & home phone together. That way you can just pick up whatever's ringing and it should just work.

An external passive antenna will not really work without a repeater/amplifier. Those are possibl;e but probably more work than you really want.
posted by GuyZero at 11:16 AM on November 24, 2009


Also be sure to look into whether AT&T's femtocell supports data service. I know there are ones that simply support voice, and not 3G data.
posted by SeanMac at 11:21 AM on November 24, 2009


Second best would be to use Google Voice and have the number ring your cell & home phone together. That way you can just pick up whatever's ringing and it should just work.

I second this: only because I've seen it work, and it worked pretty well.
posted by General Malaise at 11:23 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Regarding SeanMac's comment, if you have a wireless router at home or an unsecured one nearby the iPhone can be set-up (and is by default) to use that for interwebs rather than the 3G network.

A couple people at my work use Google Voice and it seems to work well. There are lots of options to prioritize which numbers to ring, the order to ring them in, the time of day, etc etc. They all seem satisfied with the results.
posted by Gainesvillain at 11:28 AM on November 24, 2009


You can also set up your iPhone to use Skype for about 3 cents a minute, running off your home wireless (and any other wireless you run into). It's a per minute charge you can restock, so there's no monthly.
posted by musofire at 11:39 AM on November 24, 2009


gVoice is the way to go, you can have it ring 2 numbers (home and cell) and even base it on time (only ring home after 5:30 on weekdays) or who's calling (send the boss to voicemail, ALWAYS).

If your phone company offers distinctive ring, then you'd even know which one of you the call was meant for.
posted by Mick at 11:49 AM on November 24, 2009


Have you considered jailbreaking the iphone? I haven't done it myself, but I understand that you should be able to use it with other networks.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 11:49 AM on November 24, 2009


Why can't you just connect the iPhone to your home network and receive phone calls that way? I think that's how my iPhone works at our house.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:57 AM on November 24, 2009


If you want to go the Skype route on the iPhone, you can get unlimited calls to the US (and Canada) for 2.99 a month. You could get a Skype phone number as well, and you could just call that one. However, since Skype can't run in the background, you'd have to leave the app open all the day (I presume). Does anyone know better? (Skype lasted all of 5 minutes on my iPhone.) Does it work in the background in a jailbroken iPhone?

And correct me if I'm wrong, but if you want to use other networks, you need to unlock the iPhone. Jailbreaking just lets you use non-apple sanctioned apps.
posted by cgg at 12:00 PM on November 24, 2009


I just don't want her calls through gvoice forwarded home if she's not home. I'm not sure that can be predicted with just scheduling. And she won't tolerate doing something manually.

dpx.mfx: Are you sure? I didn't think the iPhone took incoming calls over IP.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:04 PM on November 24, 2009


I'll double check tonight when I get home, but I thought that was how it was working, since ATT coverage is historically bad at our house. (I know it's how my previous phone worked on a different carrier that used ATT's network). Of course, I can't seem to figure out how to sync my iPhone to any computer, so I might not be your best advice giver here. Will try to remember to check!
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:13 PM on November 24, 2009


Note this will become largely moot if/when the ATT contact ends next summer as is speculated. By next Christmas you should be able to get an iPhone on a variety of networks.
posted by GuyZero at 12:23 PM on November 24, 2009


No, the iPhone does not take incoming calls over IP. The femtocell is your best solution because of the "no fuss" aspect, you set it up, and her phone performs normally.
posted by Oktober at 12:23 PM on November 24, 2009


Have you considered jailbreaking the iphone?

Jailbreaking only lets you install apps. Being able to connect to a different cell network requires unlocking.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:23 PM on November 24, 2009


Unlock (not the same as a Jailbreak) the phone and run it on T-Mobile. They'll happily take your money. Not sure if you get TMo service at your home, but it's an (easy) option if you do.
posted by zpousman at 12:25 PM on November 24, 2009


Please, folks, can we not just make up things because they sound plausible to the layperson?

"Why can't you just connect the iPhone to your home network and receive phone calls that way? I think that's how my iPhone works at our house."

The phone doesn't do that unless you're using Skype or something. There's no common mechanism by which a call to your AT&T number will by some mysterious force decide to be routed over the Internet to your house, traverse whatever NAT device you may have, and ring on your iPhone. I mean, yeah, there are some ways to make something like that happen (Google Voice, for example) but it's not something that's going to mystically happen just because you own an iPhone.

"Have you considered jailbreaking the iphone?"

Jailbreaking is not the same thing as unlocking. Jailbreaking won't do anything to help in this situation, apart from being an early step in the unlocking process.
posted by majick at 12:26 PM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Even if Apple's exclusive contract with ATT expires at the end of the year, the only other GSM provider is T-Mobile, and their coverage in general is worse than ATT's, so it's probably not going to help the OP.

There are a bunch of reasons why Apple will probably not produce a CDMA (Verizon, Sprint) phone.

If Verizon's coverage of your home is a lot better, check out the Droid as a sort of iPhone alternative. There is also the HTC Hero on Sprint which is an Android phone.

I'd probably stay away from the Palm WebOS (Pre and Pixi) phones on Sprint. They are having some data issues w/ customer data (calendars, contacts, etc) similar to, but not as widespread as T-Mobile's Sidekick outage.

My vote for you would be the ATT femtocell. My dad lives in in CT along the shore and gets crappy cell coverage with all providers. He's thinking of switching to the iPhone and I'll get him a femtocell.

BTW, the ATT femtocell does data usage, but if you have a WIFI network and set up your iPhone to connect to it, there's no reason why you'd use the femtocell for that purpose.
posted by reddot at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2009


From what I can tell on the AT&T site, the Femtocell is not available in my area. That's what I mean by "What's the deal" ... are they likely to be available soon, or would a third party's work (I can't imagine that would be the case)? Am I missing a way to get one from AT&T?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 1:15 PM on November 24, 2009


The iPhone will run skype, so if you have wifi she will be able to call out without any need for cell signal.

I love my iPhone but I can't recommend them to anyone until they unshackle from AT&T:

The femtocell has been in the "real soon now" stage for about a year. They still haven't rolled out tethering for iPhones. Coverage at my house sucks and I live in a densely populated area. It would be one thing if they fixed any of these 3 things but there has been no motion whatsoever for years.
posted by chairface at 1:26 PM on November 24, 2009


That's what I mean by "What's the deal" ... are they likely to be available soon

It's probably a limited trial at this point so you won't be able to get one until they're officially available in your area. It could be tomorrow, it could be years from now. Bummer.
posted by GuyZero at 1:30 PM on November 24, 2009


If femtocell isn't working or available, unlocking is option A by far.

Might I also suggest, however, option B, which is get her an iPhone for everything EXCEPT voice calls, and have her keep whatever phone like device she has now for calls? You could do this the cheap cheap way (meaning no monthly bills) and get an iPod touch which is prety much an iPhone without the phone. The biggest downside here would be no internet connectivity except on WiFi.

if the internet-in-the-car (or at work if there's no public WiFi) is important, then getting an iPhone and just not using it for voice would probably be a great option (especially as a gift as it's a bit more expensive than anything else). When she's at home, WiFi will provide the connectivity needed, and when on the go she'll have the cell service.

(A big note: an iPhone without 3G is slow as molasses...I owned one. So if your area isn't 3G enabled I STRONGLY suggest the iPod Touch route)

Nothing I've put above would I rank higher than unlocking, but you're looking at options so I thought I'd put a couple more here.
posted by arniec at 1:34 PM on November 24, 2009


Actually an iPod Touch might do the trick. It requires access to wi-fi but you can arrange that at home and your wife can use the free wi-fi services that a lot of places offer. You can download and run apps on the Touch in case you were unaware. I have both and find the battery life of the Touch much better, but I am comparing that to the iPhone 3G, not the 3GS.
posted by PickeringPete at 1:55 PM on November 24, 2009


Just to point out: Unlocking will get you nowhere. If you had T-Mobile (or any other GSM) service at your place, your friends' AT&T phones would be getting roaming service on it, instead of having no service.

Just adding something about GVoice: You can set it up to ring the iphone, and if it rings a certain number of times, to ring your home phone. That's pretty easy and not manual.
posted by General Malaise at 1:59 PM on November 24, 2009


The Touch won't cut it. It needs to offer voice and email while she's at work, which won't offer wifi. As I understand it, Skype doesn't work over 3G, so that's out.

To be clear, I don't want it to forward to the house phone except when she's physically in the house because, more often than not, she will not be able to answer the phone while at work.

It sounds like there's not a real solution for this right now. Femtocell's not available, there's nothing that offers location-aware call forwarding (by which I mean, it only forwards the calls if you're at certain GPS coordinates or joined to a certain wifi network), and exterior antennae are "more work than I want".

I'll see if she can at least confirm 3G coverage at her workplace.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:06 PM on November 24, 2009


"I'll see if she can at least confirm 3G coverage at her workplace."

Please note that unless something has changed since I last looked (and I'm forced to admit I don't know anything whatsoever about the GS series iPhones, so it's entirely possible this isn't applicable to the whole product line) the phone will fall back to EDGE in the absence of a 3G signal. It will suck at data, but it will function.

Of course, it'd be sort of silly to pay for 3G service on a 3G device if you're mostly using it for EDGE...
posted by majick at 2:35 PM on November 24, 2009


Could you find someone who lives where the femtocell is available and have them buy it for you?

Also, on the iPhone, it's really easy to manually toggle call forwarding (settings -> phone -> call forwarding). Yes, it's manual, but it's really easy. See if that's something she'd consider doing.

ATT has released the restriction about VOIP over 3G, but there is still the matter of Skype only being active on the iPhone if it's running.

In terms of GVoice, there is the capability of setting it up so that during her regular work hours it would ring only her iPhone while in the evenings and weekends it would ring both. That would be easy to set up as a recurring, automatic rule.
posted by reddot at 2:37 PM on November 24, 2009


I have a similar situation where my cell phone barely works at home. I would love to be able to have my phone be location aware just like you want. Here's my "second best" solution. I got a DID (phone number) from a VOIP provider that also supports call forwarding configured through a web interface (Google Voice might be able to do this as well, but it wasn't an option for me because Canadian DIDs are not available). I then wrote an AppleScript that I can use to quickly and easily change where that DID forwards to (either my land line or my mobile number). Before I leave the house, I run the script to switch forwarding over to my mobile number, and when I get home I run the script to switch it back to landline. If I forget to run it after I leave home, I can still use my iPhone's web browser to manually log in to the VOIP provider's interface and change the forwarding. I'd be happy to provide you with the script if it would help (it actually also reconfigures Skype forwarding and also supports an "online" mode where incoming calls get routed to a softphone on my computer).

I hadn't even thought of the idea of making this totally automatic before your question, but in theory it would be possible and maybe I'll even play with implementing it. I think I'd approach it by having a continually running script or cron job scan my local network and look for my iPhone's MAC address. If it detects that the iPhone has joined the network it switches the forwarding to landline, and when it detects that the iPhone has left the network it switches the forwarding to the mobile number.
posted by Emanuel at 4:12 PM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Emanuel, that's great idea! I was thinking about it from the phone's point of view, but I could also use something on the home network to detect the phone's presence, and try to change forwarding at gvoice based on that.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 4:25 PM on November 24, 2009


Looked into this for poor-reception issues here, and came away with Wilson Cellular hardware boosters as one of the better off-the-shelf solutions. Since AT&T uses GSM, you want a solution tuned to the 1900mhz range: A booster and highly directional antenna to pick up the signal on the roof and a omnidirectional antenna to redistribute it around the house will pretty much settle this for you.

You can pick up similar (Usually Chinese) hardware on eBay for cheaper, but Wilson HW normally gets good reviews.
posted by Orb2069 at 7:27 PM on November 24, 2009


Oh - and as far as the 'more trouble than you want' - Here's an installation guide so you can decide for yourself.
posted by Orb2069 at 7:32 PM on November 24, 2009


I'm not clear on the specifics behind femtocell and other boosters like that, but here's a link from a blackberry blog about a femtocell alternative. Can't vouch for whether or not that one is any good, but hopefully that might help.
posted by mittenedsex at 8:22 PM on November 24, 2009


There's no common mechanism by which a call to your AT&T number will by some mysterious force decide to be routed over the Internet to your house, traverse whatever NAT device you may have, and ring on your iPhone. I mean, yeah, there are some ways to make something like that happen (Google Voice, for example) but it's not something that's going to mystically happen just because you own an iPhone.
There's no reason to dismiss this as patently absurd magic. There is such a technology that is supported by many other phones called UMA or GAN. It isn't supported by the iphone, but it's not magic, it's a feature that Apple has elected not to implement.
posted by !Jim at 10:57 PM on November 24, 2009


Just wanted to add a quick detail that may make my idea less practical. By default, iPhones only have WiFi active when they are unlocked. When an iPhone is put to sleep/locked, the WiFi becomes inactive. To keep WiFi alive during sleep, you need to jailbreak the iPhone and install something like Insomnia.
posted by Emanuel at 7:50 AM on November 27, 2009


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