"What? Okay, the airport on Wednesday. Two what? I can't hear you, hang on just a minute. Let me move to the bow. How's that? Two forty-five. Okay. What flight number? Okay, I'll move again. Great view from the flying bridge. Now can you hear me?"
That's a typical onboard cellphone conversation when I'm docked on the Neuse River in North Carolina. Getting good cellphone reception on a boat should be a simple thing: Stick an antenna up as high as possible, run a cable, connect it to the phone, and you're talking loud and clear. Guess again, skipper.
I installed four different combinations of antennas, cables, and amplifiers with no luck. But I've finally found a solution that actually works. What's more, it allows for hands-free conversations, regardless of engine noise, and provides Internet access even while talking on the phone.
A cellphone on a boat is challenged in many ways. Not only are cell towers far away, they're often tuned to land customers. Normal cellphones are weak; you can add amps and antennas, but they must be matched to your particular service. And finally, there's background noise to contend with. I learned about each of these problems as I tried several "simple" solutions to what I thought was a simple problem, namely that I wanted to use my current AT&T account, maintain my phone number, and carry on conversations while sitting at the helm.
For starters, my cellphone carrier told me that my phone used GSM technology on the 800-MHz band. Those antennas are easy enough to find, but connecting one to my Nokia was another matter because it lacks an external connection. Discussions with various distributors guaranteed me that installing a clip-on inductive pickup would provide the needed connection with little signal loss. A trip aloft, some holes drilled, cables stripped, connectors installed, and-no reception. I was back to making calls from the flying bridge.
"Yup, understand the problem… you just need to add a signal amplifier. Just buy this 800-MHz unit. It works with all the AT&T phones." Well, the connector didn't fit the inductive pick-up, but no big deal, just find an adaptor, run power wires, add a fuse…crimp, crimp. We should be on the air now, I thought, as I excitedly turned on the phone and amp and waited. And waited. Defeated, dejected, and disconnected, I went home to make calls on a land line. That's when I heard, "Oh, someone told you wrong. Your phone uses 800 MHz and 1900 MHz; you need a dual-channel amplifier and antenna. Better yet, call this number and ask for Leon."
Leon Kass turned out to be enthusiastic and well informed. He's spent the last 19 years of a 35-year engineering career developing cellphone products, most recently a series of amplifiers using patented technology his company, Marine Technologies, licenses from Motorola. Kass explained that today's cellphones use minimal power to provide maximum battery life, which makes conversations over long distances nearly impossible. And simply turning up the power won't solve the problem. If a tower sees too much power, it will drop the phone-and often other phones in the area as well.
Fortunately, Kass had a solution: "By teaming the amplifier with a sophisticated mobile phone and a properly matched antenna, we can maintain conversations and high data rates at sea. In testing off the Florida Keys, I was able to maintain Internet access at 86 kb to 29 nautical miles and voice connection to 30 nautical miles. We manufacture these amplifiers right here in Florida. In fact, I just improved the design. Would you like to try the latest version?"
"I have something else I want you to try," added Kass. "Motorola just introduced the M900 mobile phone designed to operate in the noisy environment of an Israeli tank. It blanks out all the background noise, is voice-activated, and it can give you high-speed Internet access even while you're talking on the phone."
How could I say no?
Next page >
Part 2: Cell Phones > Page 1,