Cell Phone service off northern coast of Norway, how does it work?
June 17, 2019 6:20 PM   Subscribe

My friend and I took a cruise this last winter along the northern Norwegian coast from Tromsø to Kirkenes. Ostensibly, the purpose was to see the Northern lights but mostly it was a lark (FWIW, we did see the lights on the very last day in Kirkenes, so yea!). My question is, why did my cellphone work when at sea?

Upon leaving Tromsø I made sure (for once!) to preload map data into the Google Maps app so I could track our progress even without cell phone internet coverage, which I assumed would be mostly lacking.

But here's the crazy thing: no matter how remote we were from anything resembling civilization, I always had several bars of connectivity and internet searches worked remarkably well. I seriously doubt the ship would have had a free cell phone repeater (though maybe!) since they would have loved to have sold us WiFi connectivity at a premium (it was offered).

I mean, I know Norwegian public services are amazing and there are a lot of fishing fleets who would benefit from such service, but I can't even get connectivity when visiting Mendocino, CA. So my question is, how in the world did this work?

(BTW, I'm not into cruises at all, but the trip was wonderful and thanks to all the friendly and hospitable people we met along the way!)
posted by sjswitzer to Technology (10 answers total)
How far were you from the coast? A cell signal can go remarkably far when there are no trees, landscape, or buildings it has to go through. It may be that land-based towers can reach several miles out into the ocean, perhaps as far as the Earth's curvature will allow.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:36 PM on June 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We were often at places where there were no lights visible from shore in any direction and we still had coverage. I can't frankly recall whether it worked when there was no sight of land (hard to tell at night!), but I think so? Anyway, reception was always strong, even within (what I would assume to be) the near Faraday cage of a steel-hulled ship.

I mean, in America, nobody would put cell towers in a place so sparsely populated, even along highly-travelled highways (as I know from experience). Kudos to Norway if they do this for the benefit of the maritime fleet, but it's totally not a thing here in California.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:01 PM on June 17, 2019

The GSM standard took over Europe and the rest of the non-US world in the 1990s, and by sheer volume was able to drop prices dramatically on global coverage. It's what enabled Africa to be blanketed in cell coverage before they had _____ (insert anything here) and ultimately enabled entirely new economies such as M-Pesa. It's what bankrupted the original Iridium satellite phone service.

However, my guess is that your ship had a GSM cell station on board, fed by a satellite signal. Only a wild guess though.
posted by intermod at 7:16 PM on June 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Check your phone bill.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:52 PM on June 17, 2019 [10 favorites]

What he said ^
posted by GeeEmm at 8:09 PM on June 17, 2019

Best answer: GSM typically has a hard maximum range of 35km due to the width of the TDMA timeslots. However there is an 'extended range' feature which can allow you to still have service while up to 120km from the tower. Generally your handset won't put out enough RF power to hit the tower from that distance, but under the right conditions—and a big ship at sea, adjacent to land with steeply-sloping coast, is basically the textbook 'ideal conditions'—you can get pretty surprising range. It wouldn't surprise me if the coast of Norway implements the extended range timing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:30 PM on June 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Boats have repeaters now. And Wi-Fi. Sure you weren't on Wi-Fi the whole time?
posted by fshgrl at 10:24 PM on June 17, 2019

I mean, in America, nobody would put cell towers in a place so sparsely populated

This is not true in Western Europe. Ireland is majority rural and we have coverage virtually everywhere, including islands and the middle of the Irish Sea.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:47 AM on June 18, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks all, this was very informative! It seems that cell phone range can be a lot longer than I realized and that shipboard repeaters are fairly common, so it could have been either of those things. Fortunately, it was all covered under my $10/day roaming plan. RobotVoodooPower's link was terrifying. Default roaming charges are just nuts; I don't know how they get away with it.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:02 AM on June 18, 2019

I'm just guessing here, but in general it is a huge priority for Norway that the whole country has as close to equal services as possible, at almost whatever cost. They can do it because they have the oil money, but they prioritized it even before the oil discoveries for political and strategic reasons.
Also, the EU ruled some years ago that providers can't charge more for out of state/country use than for in state/country. This is practical if you live in a border zone, as millions of Europeans do. One of the places where I walk my dog, I'll get a provider from Sweden, 18 kms away.
posted by mumimor at 10:12 AM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

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