Being "off the grid" is a highly modified term in our cruising dictionary. If we didn't have 7-soon-to-be-8 grand kids back in the States it would be a non-issue, but since we do, we like our connectivity. What can I say? If I'm less of a cruiser for that, then so be it, but the expression on my grandson's face when we Skyped with him while going under a bridge on the ICW ("Dema you're going to hit the bridge!! No way are you going to fit!") was worth it all. So the communications challenges here in the Bahamas are a very personal thing to this grandma. After two months we've sort of made peace with it and here's what we found out.
If you're going to cruise the Bahamas with Verizon and you want internet, the first thing to find out is whether your phone is 1) global ready and 2) if it's unlocked and 3) if it has a sim card. My Droid Razr Maxx HD was all of those three, butTim's Droid X was not so we've been using only my phone. If you have a global ready phone that's not unlocked, you can get an unlock code from a lot of websites that are out there expressly for that purpose. Buyer beware though: a lot of times they'll sell you a code for a phone that can't be unlocked, and Verizon has very few unlocked phones. Needless to say, there's no refund. If you have a Verizon locked phone, the chance of getting it unlocked is pretty slim. If you don't have a global ready phone at all, you either have to get a new one via the internet or wait till you get to the Bahamas and buy one from them. Their prices are quite reasonable so I would recommend the latter. I saw a good selection of smart phones for under $100 outright in their display case.
Given that we had a global ready phone that was already unlocked, we were able to move onto the next choice in our journey toward connectivity which was the choice of 1) just continuing to pay our normal bill while we were gone even though we weren't using it 2) suspending the account for the two months and continuing to pay or 3) suspending the account for the two months and not receiving a bill to pay. We chose to just continue to pay our normal bill because I still have a contract on my phone and it would have extended two months if we had suspended the account without payment. We were also worried about Tim's phone if we suspended the account because he's grandfathered into the unlimited internet and we didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize that. Verizon assured us that it would not affect it, but I lost my grandfathered unlimited over a communication snafu and we didn't want to risk that.
We used my phone even 30 miles offshore sometimes for weather. Verizon's coverage is pretty amazing. We did have a dead zone between that offshore limit and acquiring a sim in the Bahamas but as soon as we got to a place that had a Batelco, we bought a Bahamian sim card. If you see a Batelco tower on an island, there is an office either directly beneath it or very near by. All of them have sims, but if your phone takes the micro sim (which mine does) it will have to be cut. The Bahamian cards are the SD size. Most but not all Batelco offices in the Bahamas have the sim card cutter which is like a hole punch, but the one we went to in Green Turtle Cay did not. You can get a template to cut the card online and it might be a good idea to print one out before you leave just in case. I had to cut mine, which I did with a good, sharp pair of scissors and then sanded the edges to fit with an emery board. It's not difficult but you do need to be precise and if you screw it up you're out the $15 for the sim. Be sure to keep your original Verizon sim in a safe place free of moisture so you can reinstall it when approaching the US. With your sim card you will be assigned a Bahamian phone number which will be yours as long as you have that sim. Once you get the sim installed, you're on to the next step.
This next step was the most confusing part of the whole Bahamian phone/internet thing for me because no one explained it to me and I had to figure it out by trial and error. If you want actual phone voice capabilities other than Skype, you have to buy a separate card for phone time. I bought just a $5.00 card so if I wanted to call a Bahamian business I could. We sometimes call ahead for mooring reservations. If you're calling in the Bahamas to another Bahama number the prices are reasonable, I believe it's $.27 per minute but don't be tempted to use this for calls to the US because it's expensive, I think somewhere around $.47 a minute. It's less than using Verizon ($2.00 per minute for calls originating from the Bahamas), but it's still better to use Skype for voice calls. I found that I can buy a monthly subscription on Skype for voice calls to land line phones and mobiles for $6.99 per month. Since my daughters are most easily reached on land line or mobile phones, I did that. One caveat: I did find that I can't call them on Skype when I'm using my phone as a USB internet tether. I have to do it on wifi. I can use Skype to do voice calls to other Skype users or video calls to other Skype users while tethered, just not voice to landlines or mobiles. As a point of information, we use the PdaNet Android app for tethering because it works with Tim's unlimited data plan. It works really well, well enough in fact to stream Netflix.
Another feature we recently discovered works well here in the Bahamas, once you get your internet card up and working, is the Facebook Messenger app. You can text through it as well as voice calls if the person on the other end is also on a smart phone with the app installed. Just look for the small phone icon in the window where you write the message. If it's there then you can call that person. The quality is good and it's free the same as Skype.
For internet access on your phone, you have to purchase separate internet datacards at a Batelco office or a designated outlet, of which there are many all over the islands. A lot of grocery store and gift shops and even some restaurants have them. Just look for the ever so visible “Top it Up” banners at your favorite retailer. During the season they cost $30 for 2 gigs, a price that is even lower than a lot of data in the US. In March we got them for $20 for 2 gigs, and now in April they're $15 for 2 gigs. As long as you don't activate them, they last till the expiration date printed on the cards. As an example, our cards purchased in April of 2014 had a July 2015 expiration date on them. Stock up at the end of the season, and bring them back the following year. If you register on their site for an account you can also top up online, although the two times I tried to do it the system was down and the outlets for the cards are so ubiquitous that it's really not difficult to buy another card.
Activating these cards is a two-fold process. You first must apply them to your account by dialing *202# and hitting send and following the menu. You will have to choose the Data option and then input your pin number which is under a scratch-off strip on the back of the data card you're activating. After you finish that portion, it will show you have $30 applied to your account and they will send you a text to let you know it was successful. OK here's the part no one seemed to find necessary to mention. After you have applied the $30 to your account, that total amount is good for 90 days, but you must put all or part of that into your “data wallet” to actually use it. You dial *205# and follow the menu to apply however much of the 2 gigs you want to use. Whatever you apply is only good for 30 days so if you're nearing the end of your time in the Bahamas but you're going to be back within the 90 days, you might only want to activate 1 gig or even less. Once it's in your data wallet it expires within 30 days. You can dial *201# to check your balance, but it will only show the balance on your account that you haven't applied to your data wallet, not the balance of what you've already put in your data wallet. They will send you a text to let you know when you have used 75% of your data in your data wallet, but they will not tell you when you've used it all so you have to keep track of it in your settings on your phone. If you run out of data but have phone time in your account, you'll see a strong phone signal in your status bar but no internet icon. That's one way you can know if you're out of data. Are you confused yet? Good because I was and I couldn't get a straight answer anywhere. If you have any trouble with your phone accepting the data balance (which I did), you may have to manually set your Mobile Network settings to Global and you may have to manually enter the Access Point Name which is internet.btcbahamas.com (which I did). You will also have to have the Mobile Data checked as on and roaming as off. If you need any help with this, find the nearest 8-year old or go to the nearest Batelco store and hope you get a good customer service rep.
In the beginning we were trying to find good wifi and were even paying mooring fees or going to restaurants and coffee shops and buying things just so we could be online. I generally find that the connectivity is at least as good and available on the Batelco card as it is on most wifi here, if not much faster. Most of the wifi in public places is slower than mud because there are so many people trying to use it at the same time. Here are a just a few of the wifi providers we used and our evaluation of them. Keep in mind that we don't have a wifi extender, but even without it we have rarely not been able to get online. There have been times we can't upoad a lot of pictures or video or Skype, but we were almost always able to get our emails and weather. The only main frustration was not being able to download new gribs on the iPads, but I understand if you can find someone to unlock your iPad you can get another Bahamian sim to put in there.
We found we had the fastest wifi at the Java Coffee Shop in Marsh Harbour, as well as the best quality, most reasonably priced coffee anywhere. The wifi there is fast enough that at one point we had 3 people on Skype at the same time with no problem. The owner, Kim, is very agreeable and supportive of cruisers.
We tried the internet at the Lofty Fig, at Snappa's Bar, at Mangoe's, all of which were too slow to be useful.
Batelco was good in the harbor as long as you were in the cockpit. With an extender and router it would have been fine inside the boat.
We tried the internet at the resort at the main dinghy dock and it was only fair strength when it came in at all, and it was “down” more than it was up. It was extremely frustrating until we discovered that the internet at La Florance Cafe and Bakery in the strip right by the dock was exceedingly fast and you could eat a cinnamon roll that feeds a family of 4 for $5 and tastes much better than Cinnabon. Florence also makes a fantastic sandwich that was big enough for us to split. She has shaded seating outside the cafe and small tables inside. She also sells the best ice cream of anywhere in the islands and the socio-political discussions with her husband, the Captain, are not to be missed. Connectivity in the islands is often a social event like this because everywhere you go to get wifi there are people sitting around engaging in something that the US has lost – the ability to have long, intelligent, non-threatening discussions about issues with people who have differing opinions.
Green Turtle Cay:
Batelco was OK in the harbour, but not great. You had to be out in the cockpit to use it.
I was really surprised with the remoteness of this harbour that we got such a strong Batelco signal. I think maybe they had installed the tower for the development that was supposed to go in there and left the tower even though the development failed.
You can get free wifi with no password at the smoothie shop on the main drag. The speed varies with the time of day and how many customers but it's almost always fast enough to Skype.
Batelco is very strong on the mooring field.Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera:Wifi at the Spot bar is very good and free. The bartender will put the password on your device for you. The only difficulty is that it's usually too loud to Skype unless you get there very early in the day.
Batelco is very strong in the bay.
The Long and Short of It:
It's a lot to digest, but for us the Batelco data cards are our primary source of online connectivity along with whatever free wifi we can come across at bars and restaurants. I find that I use the Facebook Messenger app the most, but that's because I tended to text in the US more than talk, and the Messenger texting is exactly like texting on Verizon in the States. It has a good, loud chime to notify you that a message has arrived, so it's easy to hear pretty much anywhere on the boat. It also allows attached pictures. Probably the biggest issue for us has been the lack of video capabilities. Video just uses too much data to indulge, and Tim is suffering because he can't watch his Moto GP races. We do miss the occasional Netflix movie on rainy days as well, but it just means we read more on our Kindles. The Kindles require wifi to download, but we just tend to download a bunch of books when we're on strong signal so that we have them later.
Hope this has been helpful. If you have any specific questions or experiences that are relevant, don't hesitate to post them here.