Saltwater Cellular

Electronics - September 2001
Electronics September 2001
By Ben Ellison

Saltwater Cellular
Your range not what it used to be? Here's the problem and ways to fix it.

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It's a mystery why cellular communication gets so little ink in the marine press. Usually you read that cellular is no substitute for VHF or SSB safety and ship-to-ship transmissions--which is true--and that's it. The larger truth is that cellular has become a valuable part of many boat communication systems, and it has its own particular marine-related problems and solutions.

I experienced my first marine cellphone call while delivering a yacht across the Gulf of Maine in the early 1990s. A ringing phone and the owner's voice were a surprise 30 miles offshore, but the range was impressive. Nowadays, while wending amongst the Maine islands, my mobile phone is terrific for all sorts of noncritical communications like staying in touch with home or checking out a dock-and-dine possibility. And I'm barely using the technology. More than once I've called an executive at work only to discover during the conversation that he was actually on his yacht, taking advantage of call forwarding to conduct "business as usual." I also regularly receive e-mail from cruisers who are struggling to use cellular for data communications--even Web browsing--along home and foreign shores.

It's no surprise that cellphones have become nearly ubiquitous on yachts; the shocker is that their effective range--particularly along urban coasts--is decreasing. Users off Fort Lauderdale and other cell-dense areas report losing their connection barely two miles out, when once they could use their handhelds five to 10 miles out. At first the notion of a hyper-growth technology like cellular losing functionality seems illogical, but upon closer examination it makes sense.

As a cellular provider gets more customers and expands its system, it adds transceivers to create a higher density of cells over the same area. For most users that means fewer dead spots and more available channels. But as the transceivers multiply, they are made less powerful and/or more directional, so they have less range for those of us on boats taking advantage of unobstructed sight lines to get distance. In short, long range over the water was a happy side effect of providers trying to cover large areas with minimal equipment.

That's not the whole story. My 30-mile cell call was on a bulky 3-watt analog portable phone with a four-foot antenna, a unit commonly used in cars and rural areas in the early days of wireless. As cellular has moved to more efficient and better quality digital protocols, phone engineers and marketers have focused almost entirely on making smaller handheld phones with longer battery life. A tiny 0.6-watt phone can now work so well in the dense cell networks ashore that there is almost no demand for a high-watt digital portable phone. They could exist, but they don't; and the relatively miniscule market of marine cellphone users is left in a quandary.

Next page > Saltwater Cellular continued > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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