There's a new type of hardware
available now for mobile phones and it has interesting applicability onboard boats. The generic class of device is called a "femtocell" and is well-described in Wikipedia:
It is a confusing piece of hardware
because it bridges some gaps in existing cellular technology and is difficult to grasp. If you make a lot of voice calls from your mobile phone
on your boat (or want to), it's something you should know about.
I recently purchased AT&T's new femtocell product called the "MicroCell". The hardware is extremely well made by Cisco. It requires connection to a broadband internet
connection - WiFi
is the only thing that makes sense for boating
except in a very unusual circumstance that I'll describe below.
When powered on and configured, MicroCell provides a miniature cell tower in your boat. They say it will provide 5,000 square feet of coverage. So as long as you're cruising on something smaller than a 150 ft megayacht, the coverage will be excellent.
Since it's a real cell tower, you get 4-5 bars on your cell phone
all the time when you're within proximity. You can tell that you're connected because your phone
will say "MicroCell" or "M-Cell" where it usually shows the cell tower being used.
You have to configure which mobile phones are allowed to connect to it. You don't just provide service
to everyone in the area. You're allowed to configure 10 phones or devices at a time - more than enough for most cruisers and guests. Only 4 simultaneous calls are allowed, again, more than enough in most cases.
Your mobile phone sends and receives voice calls just like normal. Voice mail including VisualVoice for iPhone
, text messages, and everything else works just like you have a 5-bar connection on land. The actual voice data goes through the broadband
connection and directly to AT&T though. If a call is received, AT&T knows that your mobile phone is on your personal MicroCell tower and routes the call immediately to you. My wife and I have been using it for all calls and it has worked flawlessly.
The actual MicroCell currently costs $150 but right now there is a $100 rebate. I think they're doing this because no one is buying
it because no one understands what it does. Without any extra plan, using the MicroCell is just like using your normal "minutes" voice plan - you just get exceptional service
because you have 4-5 bars all the time. The interesting thing happens when you add AT&T's $20/month MicroCell plan. The optional plan provides unlimited voice calls whenever you're connected to the MicroCell. That ends up being a lot less expensive than any other unlimited cellular calling plan available. An important boating
feature of the $20/month plan is that it can be turned on and off by the day costing about $0.67/day.
OK, the unusual twisted way to use a MicroCell on your boat while cruising occurs in places where there is very poor AT&T reception
, like most of North Carolina
. If you have a Verizon broadband device like a MiFi or aircard, the MicroCell would give you an interesting capability. You'd connect the MicroCell to the internet
through Verizon's service. That would give you 4-5 bars of AT&T service on the boat allowing you to make normal voice calls for free although it is using your Verizon data plan. If that makes your head
explode trying to understand it, just ignore it. It's a very specialized case and has some router configuration complexity too.
Because the MicroCell is a real cell tower, you can start a call on the boat, get in your dinghy
without hanging up, and the call will switch to a real AT&T tower just like normal tower switching occurs. Once you switch to a real tower, you're now using real voice minutes on your mobile plan however.
The five people who are still reading this might ask, how is this different than Skype? Skype also uses a broadband connection to allow voice calls to transmit over the internet to normal phone networks. Well there are a few ways that the MicroCell is better:
- You get to use all your normal mobile phone capabilities: address book, voice mail, caller ID, headsets, etc.
- You get to receive calls on your normal mobile phone; Skype has Skype-In which is similar but requires another phone number and just doesn't work very smoothly from my experience. You also need to leave your laptop
running Skype all the time in order to receive Skype-In calls.
- You get to hand off calls when you're leaving the boat without having to hang up.
- Comparing to Skype app support on phones, call quality is much better with MicroCell because the data is going directly to AT&T in a completely supported way. Using Skype on a laptop
provides good quality voice calls too most of the time but isn't as portable.
As this rolls out and becomes more common, I'd expect to see it being used a lot more for cruising. It all comes down to getting a good internet connection on a boat, something I'd bet on for the future.