Cellular Onboard - Extending Connectivity

There are a lot of people working from their boats this summer.  One of our number one requests this boating season has been for a cell booster so that in areas of weak cellular coverage, you can still get a signal.  Almost any device that uses a cell signal can be enhanced with a cell booster.

Cellular boosters or amplifiers require at least some signal to boost; if there is no outside cell signal at the external antenna, then the booster will not work. An exterior antenna gathers signals from cell towers, and this signal is transmitted to the cellular amplifier.  The signal amplifier amplifies the signal many times and transmits it to the interior panel antenna, which then broadcasts the amplified signal.

Cell boosters come in two different flavours, one relays the boosted signal via a wired connection to another device (i.e. smart hub), and the other transmits the signal wirelessly via an internal directional antenna to any nearby cellular device.  How the boosted cell signal gets transmitted or relayed, via wired or wireless, has implications, each with its pros and cons.

The cell booster that transmits the boosted cell signal via a wire to another device such as a smart hub provides very little signal loss. Once the smart hub receives the boosted cell signal, it converts this signal to Wi-Fi to allow any Wi-Fi enabled devices to connect to the internet. This sort of conversion, cell to Wi-Fi, is identical to what a hotspot does on a smartphone. The main difference is a smartphone cannot receive a wired boosted cell connection and then convert this wired cell connection to a Wi-Fi signal.  In other words, a wired cell booster needs a smart hub to terminate the cell reception and convert it to Wi-Fi. Devices onboard that require the internet will connect to the smart hub via Wi-Fi or a few ethernet ports.  The smart hub acts as a hotspot and converts the Wi-Fi to cell, to communicate using the boosted cell signal and external Omni cell antenna.

The second type of cellular amplifier has an internal directional antenna. This allows cellular devices that are forward of the directional antenna to receive a cell signal. The advantage of this cell booster is that no smart hub is needed to translate the cell signal to Wi-Fi.

The most popular cell booster we sell is the Shakespeare Super Halo 3G 4G LTE Marine Cellular Booster.  It provides 50 dB 5-band signal boosting for voice and text messages and improves 3G, 4g and LTE data connectivity for all devices in its range. It also uses stealth technology, so the uplink becomes dormant while not in use to save power.  It designed for the marine environment and is weatherproof to withstand severe ocean conditions and humidity.  It is plug and play and supports multiple users simultaneously.  The kit ships with everything you need for the installation, including the signal amplifier, outside omni directional antenna, inside unidirectional antennal, inside patch antenna, power cord and marine coaxial cables.

If you are doing the installation yourself, beware of two main challenges oscillation and overload.  Oscillation occurs when the boosted signal from the inside antenna makes its way to the outside antenna creating feedback. The best way to remedy this is to increase the physical distance between the antennas while ensuring that the inside directional antenna is not pointed at the outside antenna.  Overload happens when the outside signal is very strong, and the amplifier is overloaded with too much signal.  In most cases, the amplifier will shut down and will not start again until the boat has moved away from the strong signal.

We recently installed a SuperHalo on an older Nordhavn 475. The client, who often took his grandchildren out for the summer, wrote to tell us that they were able to watch movies in an area just off Texada where cell service was usually limited to only two or three bars.  Another client who installed the SuperHalo last summer decided to stay out longer because the service was so great, and there was no need to return to Campbell River to check in on the office. In this instance, she had remote video monitoring set up so she could review the activity in the works yard from anywhere.

Advantages of having your boat online.  Access to the internet is not only important for work and entertainment, but it is also an easy way to upgrade your navigation software or to get real-time weather data.  Installing a cell booster will also provide your cell phone with better signal strength providing a clearer call, less dropped calls while extending the battery life.

About the author: Jeff Cote is the owner of Pacific Yacht Systems, a full service shop delivering marine electrical and navigation solutions for recreational boats. Visit their website and blog for info and articles on marine electrical systems, projects and more: www.pysystems.ca