Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cheapskates on the Move, Internet Year 1

(10/2016 Update:  Sim cards & Google Voice)

Internet, part 1 (boat):  
I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but trying to figure out internet for a boat/rv can make your head spin.  We took the $55/month unlimited, unthrottled internet at our house for granted.  I researched before we moved to the boat and decided to stay with our AT&T cellular account.  This turned out to be a mistake after we learned their coverage on the east coast was TERRIBLE.  Honestly, when we asked to borrow the phone, people just laughed. "Yeah, that doesn't work here."  I used my iPad Verizon plan to supplement (tethering to other devices not available so I was sharing an iPad with The Captain.  No bueno.  "I'm blogging."  "I'm in the middle of rewiring xyz and I need to look something up...."  "So?").  We finally bought our Iridium GO! earlier than anticipated while in the middle of nowhere ICW, NC.

AT&T iPhones:  Both of our phones were out of contract so we UNLOCKED them before departing for flexibility (otherwise you may need a mifi/hotspot).  (Check to see if your phones are compatible with other carriers, ie. quad band & GSM--most later iPhones are.  Don't take my word for it.  Additional research required). We switched to the 5GB data plan with unlimited talk & text ($25 base plan + $50), using my iPhone to tether to the iPads.  (We hate talking on the phone and no texting outside the US but there isn't a "post-paid" data plan that allows tethering, that I know of).  At some point we were up to the 6GB, but after making some adjustments (see my blog about "Using less Data" 2015/09/slow-internet-andor-using-less-data.html), we now average 1GB/week (with Opera Mini browser, if no heavy graphics/videos & no software updates).   

Before we left Brunswick, I pestered the Captain for a Wirie (ap $400 www.thewirie.com/).  It's a long-range wifi antenna (with a built in router) that allows us to get wifi while at marinas (if you would have been too far from the signal), mooring fields (sometimes the signal from the marina won't reach that far) and sometimes, while anchored.  There are, surprisingly, more unlocked networks than you would imagine, even in the US and sometimes former cruisers will set up a "guest" wifi (with bandwidth limit ie. Current Settlement, Eleuthera anchorage). Many businesses who cater to cruisers including restaurants on the waterfront, have open wifi or will share their code after purchasing a drink. The Wirie quickly paid for itself in sim cards, data plans and overages.   (Be aware of security while using unknown wifi.  I believe the Wiries has a built in firewall--don't quote me.  I use cellular data for delicate financial transactions.).  We also used it to purchase daily/weekly wifi through local networks in Georgetown and Luperon. 

AT&T:  The International plan is an additional $30 for 120 MB for 30 days.  Outrageous!  But it was there if we needed it (I turned it on before leaving Luperon for Samana, "just in case.")
Also, when we left the states, we turned off one phone (a savings of $25/month) and moved the other to the minimum plan ($20/300 MB but with rollover data, we were happy to find a GB of data waiting for us when we arrived in Puerto Rico & US Virgin Islands.  At one point, AT&T told me the 300 MB was being discontinued and I wouldn't be able to get it back if I upgraded.  It's still there.)
A new plan this year that was popular with cruisers was a T-mobile plan that allowed unlimited international.  It looked expensive and I heard reports of it being spotty or slow.  It's also not permanent.  Stand by for more info in Part 2.

Google Voice email:  It was a sales call, so yeah, I left her phone number in there!

NOTE about SIM cards
:  Make sure your unlocked phone has a removable SIM card (otherwise you may need a mifi/hotspot)!  A SIM card adapter kit might also be helpful but we didn't need it (you can also buy a SIM card cutter but we left this to the professionals.  Every cellular store in the Caribbean was able to do this for us.)  When you swap out the SIM card, you have a different phone number!  I set up a Google Voice phone number.  Then, before removing my AT&T sim card, I forwarded the phone to my Google Voice number (for iPhone:  Settings, Phone, Call Forwarding, Call Forwarding ON, enter phone number).  I receive email transcripts when I have a message (Settings, Voicemail & Text tab, check Voicemail Notifications & add email address, then check Voicemail Transcripts).

Bahamas:  We purchased a prepaid BTC sim card data ($20 sim card & 2GB for $30 or 5GB for $50 at 4G speeds).  You can also add a few voice minutes (calling ahead to marinas for fuel/water availability).  We were impressed with the 4G coverage in the Bahamas.  Most islands had an antenna in sight of the boat!  (Included on the Explorer Charts)  It wasn't long ago the only internet was at a computer in the FBO or maybe in the hotel lobby.  (It wasn't terribly long ago that the only wifi was in the lobby of the Nassau Hilton unless you remembered your ethernet cord.  "Ethernet cord?!")  We bought our prepaid sim card in Marsh Harbour and reupped over the phone whenever it ran out (we never had any luck doing it over the internet).  The beauty is, no overages.  Use it up before the end of 30 days?  Buy another 30 days!  If I did it again, I would have paid the extra $$ and purchased the sim through mrsimcard.com, so we could check in our first night at Great Sale Cay.  However, we did found internet at Spanish Cay marina & at Donnie's marina in Green Turtle on the way to Marsh.  (There is a black hole in the Exuma's Land & Sea Park.  There are no cell towers on these islands, but a hike to the top of Boo Hill will get you a signal--or hoist the cell phone up the mast--but be sure to charge it up & turn the hotspot on first!). In Georgetown, we used the Wirie to get free wifi in a few anchorages but WiMAX, a local paid hotspot (bahamaswimax.comwas also available.  We had mixed results but ActiveCaptain.com gave it a good review.  Occasionally, we would pay for a day of unlimited to catch up on software updates (and it took ALL day).  Again, BTC (http://btcmobile.me/prepaidwas my preferred--I was on FaceBook & Twitter while sailing to Rum Cay (yes, their tower is functional.  Locals also told us it was free to log onto the wifi at the base of the tower, which was also currently the school!) and Mayaguez!  I even had a signal and we passed 10 miles off of Crooked Island.   

Turks & Caicos:  We had free wifi in Sopadilla Bay with our Wirie but I wish I had bought a Lime (also good in BVI, St Kitts, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Dominica) or Digicel (most of southern caribbean?) sim card before moving to Cockburn Harbor.  The only wifi here was standing in the marina market or the Iridium GO!

Dominican Republic:  In Luperon, we purchased weekly wifi through a local hotspot network for cheap!  Less than $10/week for unlimited, I think?  (walk into the office in town to pay and get a password).  In Samana, we had excellent wifi at the marina.  There is also a Claro store in town.

Puerto Rico & USVI (Soper's Hole BVI):  Cranked AT&T back up with some roll-over data (which also bled over to Soper's Hole BVI but be careful!  Turn off roaming, just in case)

BVI:  We went straight from Soper's Hole to Virgin Gorda so we managed to get through this area without a sim card or even seeing any local cellular stores (mrsimcard.com says Lime)

Sint Maarten:  I meant to buy a Digicel sim card (works down island) but I accidentally ended up with a Chippie (which was supposed to work in Saba, Statia and St Kitts).  However, it only worked on the Dutch side and not the French side.  (Our friends anchored on the French side, couldn't get their phone to work on the Dutch side).  I'll be asking more questions when we return.  Maybe a settings problem?  There is a setting to make it tether--ask before you leave or google it (settings, mobile network, cellular data, APN:  internet.chippie.nl or premium & leave username and password blank?).  No free wifi in Simpson Bay with Wirie.

Statia:   Our Chippie sim from Sint Maarten was supposed to work here but it didn't.  I didn't research if there were any settings I needed to change since our data was almost gone and we were getting good reception from Old Gin House through our Wirie.

Nevis:  Sketchy wifi through Da Bar with the Wirie, depending on how the boat was swinging (It's mounted on our stern.  I'd love to get it higher for better reception, otherwise networks come & go with windshifts).  I was going to stop in the Digicel store in town to buy a sim card, but The Captain thought the sketchy wifi was good enough since we were turning around.

St. Croix, USVI:  I had access to my regular AT&T plan here (not international rate), but if you pay the $20 weekly rate at St. Croix marina for the dinghy dock, you also have access to the showers & wifi password!  It was slow, even through the Wirie, but so was the AT&T so must have been a tower problem.  You can also walk to The Bistro in Gallows Bay for a frappe and a/c!

I heard about mrsimcard.com through Active Captain right before we left for the Bahamas.  I elected to wing it on my own, but since, I've heard good reviews about their customer support.  Their website is definitely a good reference for which sim cards work on which islands.  You may pay a few dollars more but everything will be up and running when you arrive.  (We always seem to anchor after-hours, on a weekend that's followed by a holiday which makes it difficult to buy a sim card.  Many places will help you "top up" but the actual sim has to be purchased at the cellular store.)

What we learned:

  • I can't tether my Verizon iPad to other devices?  Verizon blames Apple.  Apple blames Verizon.  (UPDATE:  iPads later than 4G should have this ability.  ASK BEFORE YOU LEAVE)
  • Prepaid data sim cards avoids paying for talk/text minutes we wouldn't use. No overages.  Just re-up when you're out.
  • Phone calls can be made on wifi through FaceBook's messenger app using audio only (popular with cruisers) or Skype (audio only).  Not for the technically challenged relatives.
  • Conserving your precious data!  See (the blog link under AT&T), especially with Opera Mini 
  • Don't forget, laptops have better antennas but mobile devices use less data
  • Free internet is not just at the library or coffee shop but restaurants, grocery, Target, etc
  • Bring DVD's.  There will be no streaming on a boat (Will use up your whole data plan.  Amazon & Netflix don't work outside the US without a VPN which will just make it slower!) or downloading movies
Internet is the US is more expensive ie. In the Bahamas, where internet, wifi and smartphones are relatively "new", prepaid data is common AND without out a basic plan and overages!  That's cheaper people.

RV websites are excellent places to research cellular data plans and wifi extenders.  Stand by for Part 2, RV--changes to our cellular plans and the international plan for season.  I recommend https://www.rvmobileinternet.com/, their book and their FaceBook pages.  They help me stay up to date on new equipment and the cellular companies antics.

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