Cell phones, planes, and the Canada-U.S. border

I just finished a three-day business trip to Boston, once again using the very friendly Norwood Memorial Airport (the Wikipedia article needs some TLC) to the south of the city. Boston has a nasty airport security zone with high security fees, required prop locks, etc. Norwood is far enough to be outside the zone, but is near stations on two MBTA commuter lines, making it easy to get in and out of downtown.

When I’m flying, I usually leave my cell phone turned on (a grey area, I know) so that I can get access quickly in case of emergencies. During this trip, however, I noticed something strange: once I was in the U.S., I had either no signal or an extremely weak one with no bars. This continued all the way into Boston, even over cities and Boston suburbs. Coverage was great as soon as I was on the ground, so it wasn’t a problem with roaming.

I think that the cell phone company who partners with Bell Mobility (Sprint?) must be refitting their towers to block out signals coming from above. I’d guess that this is the first step to allowing cell phone calls from airliners, before setting up satlink cells inside the planes themselves. This change is significant for pilots like me, who hope to be able to use the cell phone for last-ditch emergency communication if all else fails. As an historical footnote, this change would also would have prevented the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 from finding out about the WTC and Pentagon attacks and deciding to fight back against the highjackers. That said, the change is probably inevitable for simple business reasons.

Almost the second I flew across the St. Lawrence River from New York State into the province of Ontario, all of the bars on my cell phone lit up again.

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About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
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4 Responses to Cell phones, planes, and the Canada-U.S. border

  1. Niss Feiner says:

    Weird. I usually keep my cell on during my flights too and you can always hear it in the VHF. I think its just looking for towers. Kind of annoying at times. How long did it take you to get to Boston?

  2. Flyin Dutchma says:

    From my experience coverage seems to be sporadic above 3000 feet agl for me and my Blackberry. Just on principle of operation of cell phones (from what I have gathered) and my experience in the plane is that in remote areas with less cell towers I can get reception up to FL180. This happened to me on a trip from Labrador to Ottawa and between the middle of nowhere and the end of the earth my hip vibrated and I had a text message. I then continued to send back and forth emails while at 18,000 feet. Now I have watched the bars when climbing out of a place like Toronto and have emails qued to send and they won’t go after about 3000 feet. Also, a friend who also flies replied to my text at 27,000 feet over nowhereville Manitoba. So I guess if it has fewer cell towers to choose from it is easier for it to lock on to one opposed to having so many to deal with. Just my uninformed opinion based on bastardized testing :)

  3. david says:

    Fly-in Dutchman: I didn’t think of the problem of too many towers — I’ll watch that more closely and compare rural and urban areas in the future. Maybe it’s time to invest in a SatPhone.

    Niss: it usually takes about 2:30 to fly from Ottawa to Boston (a bit south of Boston, actually) in my Warrior, depending on the winds. A couple of years ago, it took me almost 4:00 to get home against a low-level winter jet, and combined with moderate and occasional severe turbulence over the mountains, that was a brutal flight.

    Outbound, I have to stop at Massena NY to clear customs, and that adds a bit to the trip. On the way home direct to Ottawa, I could have made about 2:15, but I throttled back to 60% power to save gas and arrive at my arranged customs time in Ottawa.

  4. Aviatrix says:

    Neat observation, and I have also observed behaviour that I explained by the [independently conceived] “too many towers” hypothesis.

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