Do Cellphones Work Out at Sea?

With widespread adoption of cellphones and smartphones, people these days are always used to being able to communicate almost no matter where they are. While cell companies have made great strides at filling the coverage gaps on land, the sea is almost a complete cell dead zone. Why is that, and what can be used to communicate when at sea?

The main reason there is no cell coverage on the seas it due to how the system is designed. Those who provide cell phone service take any given geographic area that they have bought or been assigned, and divide it up into any number of individual areas that will be covered by a single tower. The size of an individual area, or cell, can vary from as little as two all the way up to 10 miles in radius. The factors that determine this size are many. It can depend on the layout of the land, such as what hills or tall buildings get in the way or the number of people expected to use the network at any given time. A tower lies in the middle of a cell with multiple antennas and all the equipment needed to transmit calls or data. Cell towers are only designed to cover a small area, and they are all placed on land.

Now that the why has been answered, that leaves the question of what can be used in place of a cell phone. One of the main ways those on the sea communicate is through VHF or very high frequency equipment. Unlike cellphones, VHF radios have much larger communication range. Depending on the circumstances, ranges of 100 miles or more are not uncommon. Another important thing to consider is that many safety alerts are sent out by the coast guard over VHF as well as is important information between ships.

However, are their some things to consider when thinking about going the VHF route. First, the VHF bands are something of a party line. Anyone that has a VHF radio tuned to the correct frequency can hear what is being said. Also, while the distance isn't anywhere near as limited as cellular networks, there is still a limit on how far out one can go and still be reached. There is another option to VHF, but it can get a bit pricey.

Sat, or satellite phones, are phones that use satellites in orbit to make and receive calls. Sat phones are newer than ordinary cell phones, and have some advantages over cell phones and VHF. One of the the biggest advantages a sat phone has is its coverage area. Since it is using a satellite high in orbit, one can travel great distances and still have coverage. Also, most sat phones still retain the portability of cell phones and don't have to be installed in one location like many VHF radios. While all this may make sat phones sound like an obvious choice, there are several important caveats to consider.

First, while sat phones are indeed portable like cell phones, you will hardly be able to find a sat phone you can put in your pocket. Sat phones are larger than cell phones, and most require a decent sized antenna to get reception. Also, due to the long distances between communication points, there is a small delay when talking to someone. Lastly there is the price. While many have complained about the cost of cell service going up, the service plan costs for sat phones are often much higher.

Cell phones are great at the job they were designed to do. However, no where in that job description was use on the sea covered. There are other options, such as VHF and sat phones, but they each come with their own plusses and minuses that must be weighed and considered.