By Ben Ellison
Saltwater Cellular II
Raymarine’s VHF/cellular system is revolutionary, but it’s not perfect. For one thing, the cellular unit only supports analog service, somewhat limiting possible connections and foregoing the added features available from digital services.
Raymarine does plan to introduce a trimode cellular box in the future, but to really comprehend what’s possible with digital cellular, let’s examine what a new company called Onboard Wireless is offering. Its product is a fairly complex combination of hardware, software, and services, all designed to take maximum advantage of the particular flavor of digital cellular known as GSM. A connection kit consists of a fixed 2-watt modem and high-gain antenna, a separate Nokia 5190 GSM mobile phone, PC software, and subscriptions to both VoiceStream GSM service and Onboard Wireless’ Web and e-mail servers. The idea is to provide the best possible voice and data cell service on the water, now and in the future. Right now Onboard Wireless’ servers filter and cache commonly desired Web pages like weather and news so that they can be downloaded reasonably quickly given the slow 9,600-baud speeds common to all cell connections these days. More exciting is the prospect of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), an extension of GSM that promises 115-kbps data speeds–a more than tenfold increase. With GPRS you could be surfing the Internet and retrieving large e-mails on your boat with cable-modem-like quickness. GPRS is starting to roll out in the United States and Europe, and Onboard Wireless’ equipment is ready for it.
Another unique GSM feature is its portable Service Identity Module (SIM), a tiny card containing your phone identity and other data like your speed dialing list. When it is in the Onboard Wireless modem, you have a fixed full-power boat phone with (optional) voice communications through a handset attached to your PC. When you go ashore, you just pop the SIM out of the modem and into the Nokia handset, and you have a regular cellphone with the same number and service plan. This seems like a particularly great feature for cruising, when you may want the capabilities of a fixed system sometimes and a mobile other times. (The SIM can also help deal with the inconsistencies of GSM service in foreign lands.)
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.