Sunday, April 20, 2014

Exploring Bahamas Communication

Long Disclaimer: Communication and connectivity while cruising the Bahamas is a challenge at best. Before we left to come over here I spent a lot of time trying to collect information, and while I was able to get a good bit from the Women Who Sail Facebook group through various posts, there was some information not included so I decided to do this post on our own experience. Your communication and connectivity needs might be different so please understand that this is what works for us and while you might glean some useful information from it, it also largely depends on who your US carrier is. We have Verizon, and before you groan, we have been with Verizon since the very first cell phones came out and have never had a complaint. We have found their tech and customer service to be of the highest quality, although to be fair, we have attained VIP status on their customer list since we've been with them continuously for so long so we tend to get a little more prioritized service. While I have had varying degrees of satisfaction with certain physical equipment, that's a manufacturer issue. The Verizon network has been good for us with excellent coverage and speed. As a result, the information in this post is geared toward having a Verizon account and I have no idea how that differs with any other carrier. If you do have first hand information, please comment.

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 (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.
Marsh Harbour:

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.
Treasure Cay:
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.

Royal Harbour:
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.
Spanish Wells:

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.


Brilliant Star said...

Very, very good, very useful post.

If you decide to install a WiFi extender, you will find you can improve your speed by managing the output power at the antenna. The more powerful the access point (good signal strength) the more you need to lower your power. -60 to -55 db are considered full power.
Without a power manager, if you find yourself with an AP of -40 db and very slow operation, try moving away until the AP signal strength drops. It sounds counter-intuitive but it can and often does work. You might want to look at a program called NetSurveyor for the laptop (if Windows) or the AP called Wifi Analyzer for Droid.

Using these one can see channel activity -- where the blockages are and respond accordingly.

Finally, WiFi antenna patterns are flattened donuts. If the AP antenna is mounted too high, you will find yourself in the lower edge of the pattern and the connection will *flicker* resulting in server query resends. This is usually not a problem with indoor access, but we noticed several outdoor antennas in the Abacos that were mounted as if they were for VHF, trying to maximize line of sight. Ideally, Wifi antennas work best in the same plane.

Robert Sapp said...

Here's what I think I know about this subject, which I'm sure will be a post on our blog someday. In the US, Verizon and Sprint use a technology called CDMA. AT&T uses GSM. CDMA is not used much outside the US. GSM is the worldwide standard, since it's an acronym for Global System for Mobile Communications (don't ask me why it's not GSMC). So if you have an unlocked GSM phone, you're set. All you need is a local SIM card and you're good to go. If you have a CDMA phone, you'll find that while Verizon might have the best network coverage in the states, they're pretty hit and miss outside the US, and the farther afield you wander the less able you will be to find a good signal. So for the cruiser headed somewhere over the horizon, the best situation is to go online (we like Amazon personally, but you can get some great deals on Tiger Direct) and buy an unlocked GSM phone to use as your mobile communicator. Second best would be to have an AT&T phone that is or can be unlocked. Last place by a wide margin is a Verizon phone under contract. And that's speaking as someone who's been with them since the mid 90's, when they were GTE, before Alltel. We were living in the Seattle area, and our first phone was the size of a car battery with a handset hanging off the side!

Pat and Joan said...

Verizon's 4G LTE network is based on the GSM/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA standard. The 3G and 1xRTT part of the network are CDMA. This means that all new Verizon phones are GSM based. The size of the card is determined by the OEM as you pointed it would be nice if the standardized on a size of card. Guess we will see that after the agree on a standard charger. The 4G LTE iPad can be used in one of the 220 countries that use this standard without having to jail break it. Which invalidates your warranty for both Apple and your carrier. Yes they can tell it was jail broke.

Robert Sapp said...

But 4G is only for packet-switched data. Voice calls still fall back to circuit-switched CDMA on Verizon, at least for now. So while the 4G phone might have a better chance of being able to Skype while out of the US, I still think you're better off with an unlocked true GSM phone when cruising to ensure the maximum compatibility with cell phone systems outside the US. I wonder what ever became of the Tri-Mode phones that they used to make?

S/V Island Bound said...

Another great post. Thank you for taking the time to help others through your blog.

Deb said...

Robert - the Droid Razr Maxx HD is an unlocked GSM phone so all I had to do was put in the Bahamas Sim card.

sailing said...

The 2G Batel data cards are currently $30 each.
We have the Verizon 4G LTE IPhone on the Batelco SIM card.
Skype calls are fine on it when there is a decent wifi signal. 2cents a minute to a USA cell phone....more if it is to a land line. Good price.
We have a $25 little Batelco phone we top off routinely in order to make local calls in the Bahamas. (Rate is $.34 a minute local calls, about .85 per minute to the USA...). IMO That is EXPENSIVE either local or LD!!!
Our Ipad has a Batelco SIM and data card, we now find ourselves unable to reload ....due to the distance to a Batelco office. has to be done there.
We are still paying our regular service fee to Verizon, in order to access nav charts on our devices.
The SIM cards and Batelco phone are a one time extra cost.
Our Batelco monthly phone and data fees are costing us over $100 per month, plus Skype, plus Verizon service for both i phones and Ipad. We have been here since end of June....Morgans Bluff to Exumas. Phone and data expense is running nearly double USA per month on avg. It is ridiculous. We use Batelco phone as little as possible, and try to use VHF for local marine businesses when possible. Our wifi extender has proved useless in most locations. Good wifi and great conch snacks at Eddy Edgewater in Georgetown. Emerald Bay Marina has been good wifi at our slip.
Looking forward to getting further along in this cruise, and out of the Bahama phone/data system

sailing said...

Thank you for the info on OP and the follow up comments.
Very helpful.