Cell boosters for pandemic times, testing Shakespeare Stream & SureCall Fusion2Go
With COVID-19 stalking the planet, settling down in a remote Maine anchorage sounds even more attractive than usual. But I’ll also want a connection to family, news, etc. even more than usual, and reliable cell service remains a longterm issue in many of the sweetest spots along this coast (and elsewhere), despite what the service provider coverage maps show. So I’m pleased to report on two related cell boosters that have already worked pretty well for me.
Last summer I installed the Shakespeare Stream Wireless Internet Booster above and tested it in some of our favorite cell holes not far east of Camden. Yes, it seems like some of the best places to lay on a hook for several days are at the very fringe of cell service, and also lacking hotspots that might be tapped with a good WiFi booster. Then again, time spent quietly aboard with your favorite mate — going ashore mainly to hike lightly used and gorgeous island trails — might be social distancing at its best.
Actually I saw mixed results with the Shakespeare Stream, but mainly because my local Verizon service can sometimes be much worse than the signal strength indicates. While I’ll explain that lesson learned below, I remain confident that the Stream itself is good at boosting usable signal because Gizmo was equipped with a very similar system since early 2018, including a slow cruise from North Carolina to Maine.
To be specific, the Shakespeare Stream marine booster kit uses the same basic SureCall Fusion2Go technology I first tested back then. And that’s not a bad thing. While SureCall custom manufactures the Stream with added protective internal coatings and the yacht white paint job, both operate in the same fully automatic and informative manner. In other words, when properly installed, the Stream also lights all those LEDs solid green to indicate that it’s ready to improve those various cellular signal types, and may already have boosted one significantly, as graphed on my phone by the Network Signal Pro app.
So the SureCall booster, white or gray, can be installed out of sight. But I advise mounting it somewhere where you can peek at the LED array if the boosting isn’t obvious on your phone shortly after poor service causes you to power up the system. Or if the boosting gets flaky. That’s because the LED for the service you’re using — LTE-V in my case — will blink green if the booster is automatically adjusting gain due to “oscillation or overpowering” and then red if it fails to resolve the issue.
That may never be a problem on boats with sufficient separation between the outside and inside antennas, but you won’t know for sure until the booster has automatically adjusted to its maximum 50dB gain in a very fringe area, and there may then be ways to improve the install on the fly (funky example further below).
It’s worth noting that the white Shakespeare Stream above is actually equivalent to the improved Fusion2GO 3.0 model that succeeded my test 2.0 device, and that all such currently available FCC approved designs are members of the post booster crackdown generation. The rumors of cell providers cutting off boaters because their cell boosters caused trouble for other customers — or of FCC agents coming to marinas to seize equipment — are thankfully in the past.
But along with the strict new technical requirements also came user rules. You “must register your booster with your wireless provider” and I (belatedly) found Verizon’s online registration site here. Also, only specific manufacturer-approved antennas and cables are allowed with specific boosters, because the total amplification is the sum of all parts. But I’m dubious that anyone much cares at this point because it seems like the automated “oscillation or overpowering” protections really work.
As for the final warning on the Fusion2Go 2.0 label — “This device may be operated ONLY in a fixed location for in-building use.” — I haven’t a clue. These SureCall devices are specifically titled Mobile Signal Boosters, and they meet mobile booster standards that are actually somewhat stricter than what’s allowed in fixed situations.
The Shakespeare Stream kit includes their Galaxy 5239 cell antenna along with the stainless sleeve and standard 1″-14 threaded marine base seen above. That makes for a neat and strong boat install, and you can even thread the small FME male connector through the mount’s bottom and a cabin top or masthead hole to hide the co-ax completely.
But note that the N-type female connector at the antenna end of the included 20-foot SC-240 cable won’t fit through any 1″ marine antenna mount I know of, and therefore must be screwed on before the sleeve and before running the cable anywhere it can’t be rotated easily. I keep hoping for a design that uses an unthreaded sleeve with set screws, but at least the antenna connector means that you can use a longer and perhaps lower loss coax cable if desired.
In fact, you can put together your own Fusion2Go 3.0 boat kit from a quality online source like Waveform, but it may not cost much less than an online Stream at $665, especially considering the added device waterproofing and Shakespeare’s marine-oriented tech support. And the Stream is also a booster that’s probably available through your boatyard or electronics installer.
I don’t wear a tinfoil hat, but sometimes Gizmo’s inside booster antenna and phone do! I vividly remember this spot as a lovely creek just off the ICW south of the Pamlico River that deserved some explore/hangout time if it hadn’t been for the snotty weather and very marginal cell connection. But when the hardworking Fusion2Go’s LTE-V light went solid red, the foil really did help to increase the effective distance between the little patch antenna fit into my phone mount and the big one up on the port spreader.
While antenna separation is an important consideration, Shakespeare’s illustration of a center console install is still reasonable because the two antennas are focused in parallel horizontal planes while the small separation is almost all vertical. Also note that the Stream kit is designed for the simple booster style I first wrote about in 2015 — phone in a fixed spot providing internet to other devices via WiFi and audio calls via Bluetooth headset (or a well-equipped geezer’s hearing aids). It can also work easily with a cellular hotspot device, and then all the phones on the boat can remain mobile.
But you may encounter places where a well-boosted 4G cell signal doesn’t mean a good internet connection. I captured this screen last summer while just across the Bay in peaceful Perry Creek and you can see by the graph that I struggled a bit with inside antenna placement as the Stream fought to boost the thin Verizon signal it could see from the mast spreader. And it sure looked like it succeeded in overcoming the Vinalhaven Land Trust Preserve topography that make the free moorings (set up by a generous cruiser) even more attractive.
But all those 4G bars didn’t mean much in terms of web browsing or even managing email, and I couldn’t understand why until I noticed the little “R” for roaming at the top of my phone screen and the “Extended Network” shown in the app — a surprise given my experience in these waters, and also given the Verizon coverage map.
Even if you drill into Verizon’s coverage map for better detail, you’d conclude that Extended (pink) 4G doesn’t start until you cruise past Schoodic. And shouldn’t it be about as capable as regular 4G anyway? I’m sorry to report that I later encountered nearly useless Extended Verizon in other cruising spots, and I already knew from lots of experience that while the (red) 4G shown on the western mainland above is for real, much of what’s splattered across that fantastic cruising area eastward is fantasy.
Last fall, I learned from T-Mobile testing that its rosy looking coverage map is even more flawed, and I don’t know of any cell service that covers Downeast coastal Maine well. But maybe we should think of it as a cruising and electronics challenge?
For this coming season, I’m moving Gizmo’s cell antenna to the masthead, and I also hope to test an unusually powerful booster that I plan to detail here soon. Getting a good connection to the boat in places like Perry Creek and McGlathery Island seems like a doable goal in this chaotic time. And, by the way, there’s plenty of cruising room up here. But who knows?
Right now I’m not even welcome to go ashore on North Haven and I completely understand why the little community quarantined itself. Meanwhile, my family and I are doing fine, so are the Steins living aboard in Fort Myers, and we plan to keep Panbo plugging along. And we certainly hope that readers everywhere are coping with the challenges, and that we’ll all be cruising on the backside of a well-flattened pandemic curve soon.