Mobile Europe reports from onboard the first GSM-equipped ship in Europe
by Richard Thurston
Onboard the SeaFrance Rodin
Whilst many mobile operators have obtained 99% population coverage of most West European countries, there still remains a large hole in the coverage map for customers on the move.
Calls made while stationary have largely been catered for, but calls made in transportation are creating a whole new challenge for operators, whether that be by air, rail or road.
Orange has been one of the leading providers in providing coverage for travelling customers.
It has already equipped an underground rail system in Newcastle (north-east England) with GSM coverage and is trialling a system of using directional antennae to provide end-to-end coverage through the UK’s railway tunnels.
Its latest project is somewhat different, in that it aims to provide blanket coverage across the Channel sea between England and France.
Much of the Channel is currently a blackspot, due to the distance between the two countries, and the legal necessity for the English and French networks not to overlap.
But Orange has significant advantage in owning a network in both countries.
To aid coverage across the Channel, it has optimised one basestation on each coastline so the signal propogates further into the Channel.
It has also installed two repeaters on board its first trial ship, the SeaFrance Rodin.
Each repeater — one for the English network and one for the French network — amplifies the signal received from the respective coastline.
Both repeaters are connected via coax cable to mini-antennae located throughout the ship, which provides the coverage to travellers in most locations on the ship.
The antennae are necessary because of the quantity of metal in the ship’s structure, which would otherwise hinder coverage.
Because each country’s regulations state that there must be no crossover of the networks, the system is set up so that users should automatically link to Orange UK in the English
half of the Channel, while when they cross the frontier into French waters, they should switch to Orange France.
Our reporter took a phone containing an Orange UK SIM and a phone with a T-Mobile UK SIM on the ship from Dover, England, to Calais, France.
The Orange UK network was extended far out into the Channel, whilst the T-Mobile UK network dropped out significantly earlier.
In fact, so strong was the amplified Orange UK signal that our reporter’s handset did not roam onto the French network virtually until his arrival into the port of Calais.
It was further possible to manually select the Orange UK network once docked in Calais, and upon the return, to connect to Orange France in Dover.
This poses some fascinating questions for the regulators of each country, Ofcom in the UK and France’s Agence Nationale des Frequences (ANFR).
Our reporter’s SIM also chose to switch to SFR for part of the return journey.
However, the project was overall highly successful, and the T-Mobile SIM enjoyed Orange France coverage for much of the remainder of the journey after it lost its UK network.
0mins — Near perfect network coverage for both networks
25mins (England/France boundary) — Orange UK signal is strong boosted by the onboard repeater; T-Mobile UK network present but slipping
35mins (French waters) — Orange UK network still strong; T-Mobile network still present
39mins — Incoming call to T-Mobile SIM. Call completed but most of conversation indiscernible.
40mins — Incoming SMS received to T-Mobile SIM.
43mins — both networks weaken considerably
51mins (1km from French shoreline, ship turns and heads parallel to shoreline) — Call made successfully over OrangeUK network
55mins — Call impossible over T-Mobile UK network. T-Mobile network dropped, and does not roam.
63mins — Call impossible over Orange UK network, does not roam. T-Mobile UK SIM has roamed onto Orange France.
68mins — Orange UK SIM roams onto Orange France.
69mins — Arrival in port of Calais. Orange UK SIM returns to Orange UK network.
9mins — Orange UK SIM roams back onto Orange France.
10mins — Orange UK SIM chooses SFR (France) network.
14mins — Orange UK SIM switches back to home network.
69mins — Arrival in Dover. Orange France network still available.