Written by Ben Ellison on Oct 28, 2013 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub
The test scene is admittedly messy, but having the Wilson AG Pro Quint cell booster out at the helm made it easier to read and photograph. I could also monitor the screen on the Medusa Power Analyzer that the 12v feed is running through (the Quint pulled about 11 watts with two of its amps turned up to about 70db and the other two at about 50 and 55). The best part, though, is how real the testing was. Gizmo is anchored in a wicked cell hole that also happens to be beautiful (mapped here via the test DeLorme InReach SE mounted to the windshield) and only about 11 miles from Camden. Heck, a Verizon call with my wife failed abruptedly about two miles from the anchorage and I couldn't even get a text out!
Let me tell you more about the test install. In the top photo you can see the thick (and relatively inexpensive) Wilson LMR 400 coax cable that connects the booster to the outside omnidirectional Wilson Marine Antenna that I bench tested last winter. The antenna is now mounted on Gizmo's spreader (as described here in March) and the super low-loss cable was a lot easier to run than I anticipated; while it bends smoothly, it also goes where you push it. I've tried all three of the interior antennas I me ntioned in the bench test entry, and the one I've settled on is Wilson's Panel model, which is facing down on the floor of the flybridge electronics cabinet that's directly above the lower helm area. That way its directional radiation path is aimed at all of Gizmo's current cell devices -- the Maretron SMS100 just visible behind the Garmin 741, the Siren Marine Sprite mounted behind the cable column, and my Nexus Galaxy phone, whether it's in the cradle or anywhere in the vicinity.
So, how did the Quint do? Well, expectations should be high for a booster that costs over $800 and is designed to help mulitiple cell devices in a large building, and the Quint is a monster booster indeed. I've now tested it in many difficult cell locations along the Maine coast and elsewhere, and I don't think it's ever failed to increase my phone's perceived signal strength noticably, if not significantly. At this Barred Island anchorage -- where I could only see a bar or two of Verizon coverage and only get voice calls and texts through sporadically -- the Quint made those normal phone operations work just fine.
But what's especially impressive is how well the Quint handles the twin bugaboos of cell tower overload and inside/outside antenna oscillation. In either case the device instantly stops amplifying the specific problem frequency, shows the red trouble LED, and sets up the little screen to both explain the issue and fix it. In the photo above (click on it for larger), the Quint has seen OSCillation (feedback) between Gizmo's two antennas on the (Verizon flavor) 700 MHz band, and now all I have to do is push the Gain Down button to fix it. The same thing happens if the Quint senses that it's overloading a cell tower, and that's fixed just as easily. I've found that setting each gain two or three dB below the warning will usually avoid further shutdowns, and of course, you can turn unused frequencies to the minimum, but expect to tweak your desired frequencies every time you move the boat. The four maximum dB settings that worked fine in this anchorage all had to be reduced considerably when I got back to Camden. (Incidentally, the Quint gets its name because it can amplify both the 700 B12 (AT&T LTE) and 700 B13 (Verizon LTE) bands, though you have to choose which).
However, what's unfortunately less predictable about the AG Pro Quint--and maybe any of the many new boosters aimed at data users in general and 4G lovers specifically-- is actual data improvements. For instance, in the Barred Islands just a few miles from Verizon LTE 4G fast data heaven, even the mighty Quint couldn't bridge the gap. And though it improved the available 1xRTT data signal substantially -- and sometimes even got the connection up to HSPAP (3G) -- I spent the night without my phone able to serve as a decent WiFi hotspot, which for me is primary goal of this whole boosting excercise. I've also seen a number of 3G situations where the Quint would definitely improve the signal, but the phone would also start shutting down the data connection frequently. (Perhaps because noise on the connection was also amplified, which displeased the tower?)
But let me emphasize the phrase "less predictable"; I have gotten some great data connections with a Wilson boost, and they've helped me do what I like to do on the boat, be it taking care of Panbo, surfing the news, or streaming NetFlix. But while I suspect that the AG Pro Quint is very current in a fast moving technology, I also suspect that boosting fast cell data is tricky business and would caution all to keep their expectations in check.
There are also certain places where cellular is downright mysterious and Camden Harbor happens to be one of them in terms of normally pervasive SMS messaging. I first saw this with a Cobra C Pod alarming and tracking system, which may be a great product, but which I couldn't test because its AT&T GSM Sim card wouldn't work here at all, even though AT&T phones do. I saw the same weird phenomenon with the first Siren Marine product I tested, but Siren came up, analyzed the situation, and eventually switched to a T-Mobile card that's been working well here and elsewhere ever since. That's why I wasn't too surprised when an AT&T card wouldn't work in the Maretron SMS100, and why I purchased a T-Mobile prepaid card, too. Well, get this--at the Barred Island anchorage both cards worked fine in both directions with Wilson Quint assistance (two bars went to four or five), but here in Camden the SMS100 with T-Mobile card can only send test messages and receive Status commands; it won't reply or send alarms. This may be an odd Maretron DSM issue (they're investigating), but very local SMS anomalies may be at work, too.
Meanwhile, at last month's NMEA Conference, Shakespeare debuted a new line of Anywhere Voice and Data Cellular booster kits. So far, the only one listed online is the basic CA-VAT kit seen below, but it looks pretty good if you're willing to go without 4G boosting. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Shakespeare has partnered with SureCall so the kit includes the former's marine cell antennas and the latter's Cellphone-Mate booster technology. Add in Shakespeare's wide distribution in the boating world plus its relationships with many electronics installers, and I'd say that Wilson is going to have a harder time entering this market than it might have a year ago. But it's going to be a good competition for us cell-hungry cruisers. At NMEA Shakespeare was handing out data sheets for several booster kits with 4G abilities, and I'll guess that Wilson will be out with a model that is as easy to maximize as the AG Pro Quint, but without the high price (and perhaps the extreme 75 dB power gain that's not very useful on a medium size boat). Gizmo probably won't get out to the Barred Islands cell hole and beyond until April or May, but I'll bet there will be more testing to do.