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AT&T Tries to Trick Customers into Paying More to Use Less

AT&T has made little secret of the fact that iPhone users’ voracious appetite for Internet bandwidth has loaded down its 3G network to its breaking point. But rather than upgrading its 3G network like T-Mobile, or going full throttle on 4G deployment like Sprint and Verizon, AT&T plans to fix the problem by… asking consumers to bear the load for them, and charging them money for the privilege.

The company’s new 3G MicroCell acts like a miniature cell phone tower, routing calls through your home Internet connection – the one you probably pay at least $30 a month to access – rather than burdening AT&T’s 3G network with your traffic – which you will continue to pay at least $30 a month for.

How nice of you.

In exchange for taking your weight off its creaking, overburdened network, AT&T will happily charge you $150 for the 3G MicroCell, and continue to deduct minutes from your plan when you use it, even though you’re paying another company to handle your traffic, and paid out of pocket for the device to do it. If you want to reap any benefits, AT&T will stop deducting minutes from your plan whenever you’re in range of the MicroCell – in exchange for slapping another $20 bill in its hand every month.

The story of Tom Sawyer tricking another boy into whitewashing a fence for him and collecting an apple in payment comes to mind, but I can do one better.

Imagine a bus company that charges you $100 a month for a bus pass, but the busses get so crowded you can barely use them. The bus company’s solution: Offer to sell you a bicycle for $150, so you can help free up room on its busses by not using them all the time, even though you’ll continue to pay $100 a month as if you did.

It almost offends me that AT&T thinks we’re dumb enough to fall for this, but I know many consumers will be. By promising better reception around the house with the 3G MicroCell, as the company is bound to do in advertising it, many cell customers will happily shell out $150 for one, unaware of the traffic they’re moving to their home Internet connections, or the favor they’re doing to AT&T. Just like Tom Sawyer’s pal.

In AT&T’s defense, it’s no guiltier than any other carrier in attempting to dupe us with the 3G MicroCell, which is part of a larger class of electronics known as femtocell devices. Verizon’s Wireless Network Extender, launched last year, costs a whopping $250, doesn’t provide 3G, and won’t even let you stop others – like neighbors with Verizon plans – from leeching off your service for better reception. Sprint’s Airave pulls similar shenanigans.

I don’t mean to vilify femtocell technology. It’s actually marvelous stuff that could help uncongest airwaves and speed up mobile Internet access, but AT&T and others haven taken a completely backwards approach to implementing it. Ultimately, these devices should be free to anyone who agrees to actually use it – subsidized by carriers in exchange for the lightened load on their networks. And because you cost carriers less, not more, when you use them, unlimited calling with no minute allotment should be a given on any femtocell device as an incentive to use it as much as possible, not an extra you pay monthly for.

As long as evil geniuses with big marketing budgets get their way, that won’t happen. In the mean time, the best you can do is stay as far away from Tom Sawyer’s whitewashing scheme as possible, and wait until he offers a real incentive to pick up the brush.

Maybe I’ll flick off the Wi-Fi on my iPhone in protest and soak up even more of AT&T’s precious 3G while at home. Just kidding. No act of protest is worth voluntarily subjecting myself to that network more than necessary.

If you would like to leverage your home Wi-Fi connection to make cheap calls without scratching AT&T’s back while you’re at it, make sure to check out our list of iPhone VoIP apps that can help you pay for fewer minutes and get more.