9. Cruising Communication
By Tom Neale, 8/12/2004
E-mail and internet surfing on land are no big deal. But doing it from your boat while cruising presents a host of issues.
To do email successfully on the cell phone, you not only need digital equipment, but also equipment that’s data capable. In addition, the tower that’s serving you must have equipment that can handle your cell phone company’s type of digital signal. There are several different types of protocol being used by the various companies. They’re called technical names like “CDMA,” “TDMA, “GMS,” etc. Sometimes one company will rent space on a tower that’s owned by a different company and the equipment on the tower won’t be totally compatible with the tenant company’s data services. This means that sometimes your phone’s display may indicate that it’s being served by your company, but it still won’t work for the digital data communication program of your company.
We’ve found that, for talking and for data, a signal booster and external antenna considerably boost our cell phone signal under the right circumstances. Some cellular customer service people will tell you it won’t work, but this works for us and everyone else we know who uses it. We’ve been able to have voice communications out in the ocean up to around 30 miles from the nearest tower. Wrong circumstances include situations where you are in signal border areas or overlaps between more than one tower. This can cause the phone, especially with a booster, to become “confused” as to which tower to lock onto, resulting in very poor communications. But in areas where there is only one company, such as, for example, the Bahamas, the booster works especially well. You’ll need to get antenna cable of sufficient thickness for the run up to your external antenna, and a coupler that will mate the external antenna wire to your cell phone.
We use the DA4000 from Digital Antenna, Inc. of Ft. Lauderdale. 5325 N.W. 108th Ave.Sunrise, FL 33351, 954 747 7022, (877 433 7007) www.DigitalAntenna.com. Height helps, so we got their 883 CW external cell phone antenna and mounted it on our mizzen mast. We used LMR 400 antenna cable. This is very thick, but the thicker the cable, the less power loss occurs during the distance of the run. (You may not need a cable this heavy. It’ll depend on distance of your antenna wire run.) You will also need a coupler to mate the cable from the booster to your phone. They will probably have one for your phone. Digital Antenna now also makes the DA4000SBR which is wireless (you don’t need to hard wire your cell phone to it). Essentially, it gets the tower’s signal through an external antenna mounted on deck or preferably on a mast, boosts it, and repeats it sending it through your boat’s spaces. It’s like you have a mini cell tower aboard, and you can talk through it with multiple phones. With devices such as the DA4000SBR your boat has to be large enough so that you can mount your external receiving antenna far enough away so that this antenna and the repeater won’t talk in a loop. Digital Antenna recommends a 20 foot separation, at least. (They also warn to not have your repeater mounted too close to your head!) You can buy from Digital Antenna and there are various retailers for their equipment and that of other companies. One is Cell Antenna Corporation, 2423 University Drive, Coral Springs Florida 33065, 877-998-2628 (www.boatantenna.com).
If you want to be sure of coverage almost everywhere on the continent and have broad coverage offshore, the satellite phone is probably the best bet now. Downsides are the expense of the equipment and air time, and the fact that it’s very slow for data. You can use e-mail fairly well, but internet surfing on a sat phone is very slow, although possible. Some companies, such as Ocens, offer packages which help. (800 746 1462 or www.ocens.com) From Ocens you can buy or rent Globalstar phones and service, and programs which compress data and exclude irrelevant data to the extent that the result is one of apparent higher speed. Some financial institutions and others with high security concerns may not work well with compression programs such as these, but the Ocens products that I’ve used with a sat phone did well, considering the slowness of the satellite hardware. You can also get exceptionally good weather products from Ocens. Their products work with other technology, such as cell phones.
For reports of successful communications and specific equipment used while cruising the east coast (also applicable to other areas in the US), go the current East Coast Alerts section.
Some caveats: All this is changing (usually improving) rapidly. Keep up with the latest. Also beware that many of the “special deal packages” offered by cell phone companies for voice communications apply only to the user’s home area, usually called a “footprint.” If you’re out of the area, costs may skyrocket. Anytime you’re going to cruise and use a cell phone, be sure that your plan covers the area of your cruise. If it doesn’t you could be hit with hefty roaming and long distance cruises. If it doesn’t, sign up for a one rate plan that does. Anytime you purchase any equipment to enhance your cell phone, be sure that it will work with the protocol used by your cell phone carrier. Ask the dealer.
We haven’t tried all the technology and all the companies. When we mention one here, we’re not doing so to say that it’s the best, but merely to tell you of our experience with it.
In Tom’s Tips Cruising Communications, (Tip 9) I mentioned cell phone boosters and how much they help. I also said that in my experience with cell phone boosters, when you’re in overlapping tower areas and at great distance from those towers, the cell phone may become “confused” and jump from tower to tower. Digital Antenna now has a new version of its DA4000 booster that’s designed to solve this problem. They say that the new DA4000 “has dynamic variable gain control so that it gives the tower the exact power it wants. The tower will not know that the phone is on the DA4000 amplifier. If the tower wants .1 watts, the DA4000 gives it .1 watts. The DA4000 provides clear communication whether under a tower, near several towers or is 30 miles away.”
Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale