Cell Service in International Waters

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Writing for an audience of seafarers, Commodore Vincent Pica told Blue Sky News, how dangerous it can be to rely on cell service at sea.  He reminds readers that cell phones operate through land use and how signals travel in that environment.  Given the unpredictability of the ocean, cell phone coverage over any distance is not guaranteed. 

Speaking bluntly, he says “OK, skipper, here is the scuttlebutt. First, there is no reliable way to be definitive about cell phone coverage at sea.”

One of the frustrations he reports, is callers who can see a five-bar signal on their phone, but cannot connect.  An explanation for this could be a cell tower at a high elevation that can contact the phone, but the device is not strong enough to communicate back to the tower.

Bringing a cell phone onboard could provide some ability to contact help, but Pica states that sailors risk their lives if they don’t have a VHF radio on board.  “A VHF signal is both stronger than a cell phone signal and directly connected to the U.S. Coast Guard,” the Commodore said. “Federal regulations also open channels between all VHF radio operators.  A boat in distress will reach other nearby boats which may be able to offer assistance.”

By contrast, a cell signal will, at best reach one connection at a time. Rescue odds diminish the longer it takes the call to reach the USCG.  VHF radios also transmit at 5 to 25 watts, depending on the model in use. Cell phones and towers use less than one watt and simply don’t have the connection power of a VHF radio.  Pica suggests that if you opt to keep your cell phone, investing in a booster antenna can net you an extra 50 miles or so. But he wonders why a sailor would spend the money on a cell phone enhancement when the advantages of a VHF radio on the water are so marked.

December 19, 2018

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