Sunday, November 9, 2014

Revisiting Communications

A while back one of our readers commented on one of our cruising cost posts about our Verizon bill and he wondered if we might not be able to get that bill down some by using some other carriers and plans. The bill bugs me every month I pay it because it is one of our biggest expenses, but we were under contract and rather than buy it out we decided to stick it out. As the end of the contract neared, I decided to do some exploring.

First of all, it's important to note that our cell phones are almost 100% of our internet accessibility. We do spend a lot of time on the internet for various reasons. We don't watch TV, we're voracious readers, we're working on two book projects and need the research time and we keep up with our family and friends through various blogs and Facebook. A lot of cruisers are happy to spend hours inside Starbucks waiting an eternity for their Facebook feed to load because whatever marina they're in has wifi that is even slower. I'm not exactly sure how it's possible because, after completing my children's book recently and needing to upload the (very large) file, I traipsed the ¾ mile to Starbucks and sat there for 4 hours waiting for it to upload. It cost me a total of $18 in coffee between Tim and I to get it done. After receiving the proof a few days later and realizing I had some corrections to make, I decided that paying Verizon $10 for a gig overage on my data was cheaper than going to Starbucks and I wouldn't have to traipse the ¾ mile in the rain on top of it. Much to my surprise, the same size file uploaded through my hotspot in minutes.

We've looked at purchasing one of the many wifi extenders on the market, but the average price of $300 has been just out of our reach due to the many other non-discretionary expenditures raging through my checkbook. If it worked, though, it would be paid for in a couple months' Verizon bills so it had to be considered. To assess the benefit, I looked for wifi signals in the towns we visited and talked to cruisers. To be quite honest, in the year since we left to go cruising I can't honestly say it would have helped us much. There are almost no wifi signals anymore that are not password protected. Free, yes, but most still require a password. If you're going to be in an anchorage for a long time I guess you could patronize the provider once to get the password and then use it from the anchorage with the extender. A word of caution - this will not work in the Bahamas because the restaurants and bars change their password frequently (some every day) just to prevent cruisers from doing this. Even with a password in hand, speed is still an issue. We gauge the acceptability of wifi speed by whether or not Tim can stream his MotoGP videos. Some people have news habits, some have movie habits, Tim has a motorcycle racing habit. While we were in Ft. Lauderdale at Cooley's Landing, the dial up wifi at the marina was unable to get it done. Tim had to make the weekly trek to Publix to watch the races while I shopped. When we moved to Middle River in Ft. Lauderdale he had to go to the Galleria for the privilege. Free wifi has just not been able to meet our internet needs.

When my youngest daughter bought a new phone we asked if we could have the old one to replace Tim's aging Droid X. After receiving it, it turned out it wouldn't work on Verizon since it was originally a T-Mobile phone, so we decided to do a two-month test by putting the phone on Straight Talk, Walmart's version of prepaid phone and data service. We had two months left on our Verizon contract and it would be the perfect opportunity to test the speed and access against his Droid while it was still also on the plan. In the process of researching plans, we discovered several things we didn't know before. It turns out that all unlimited data plans have some sort of throttling in place and are truly not unlimited. If you don't know what throttling is, here's the gist of it. If you happen to have a 4G unlimited plan with Straight Talk, after you cross the 3 gig data use point they will throttle your speed back to 2G for the remainder of your month. In our case that was at least half of every month. We researched Verizon and it turns out that their throttling is slightly different. It's still throttling, but they call it "Optimizing". On Verizon's unlimited plan there is a difference between 3G and 4G phones. If you're on an old 3G phone and you're in the top 5% of data users (they define this as anyone who uses more than 4.75gb in a month), and you're on a cell tower that has high demand, they throttle you back to allow everyone else a fair amount of data. Once the demand is reduced, like 2am for instance, then they put your speed back up. We had been noticing this with Tim's phone for some time. I'm on a 4G hotspot plan with Verizon so I was not experiencing this. Why do they do this? Because a lot of the 3G phones are grandfathered into the unlimited data plans that Verizon used to offer, Tim's included, and they are trying to force them into buying a new 4G phone, thereby losing the grandfathered status of unlimited data.

In the middle of all of this research, someone was kind enough to post a link on Facebook to a news release that AT&T was going to offer double data plans at the same price for a limited time. I called AT&T and had a very long discussion with a very polite and well-informed customer service rep. Neither of our phones would work on the AT&T network and the combined cost of new phones and a new plan to switch to AT&T just didn't make any fiscal sense. So I did what all good consumers do, and took the offer to Verizon. It turns out that Verizon, under great duress, was quietly matching the AT&T offer with some small revisions. I was able to get double the data that we currently were getting for the same monthly bill. So while it didn't reduce the bill, at least for the moment we can gleefully consume internet time without constantly staring at the data use graph.

For some people, cruising is about completely detaching themselves from the grid. No phone, or at least only emergency plans, no TV, no internet. For us, the internet is essential. It makes it possible for us to write and be published, it makes it possible to stay in touch with our kids and grand-kids, it makes it possible to manage our rental, and to keep up our blog. You might be able to cruise with a phone bill that is much smaller than ours, but for at least the time being I'm just going to have to deal with paying ours every month.


Steve said...

I don't think there'll ever be a wireless network without the notion of throttling. Otherwise, a very small number of users could bring the network to its' knees (and they would). AT&T throttles at 5Gig, though not by knocking the signal back to a 2G/3G level.

Robert Sapp said...

I think that in the not too distant future (five years if we're lucky), we'll see our current era as the worst of all possible times. A decade ago we didn't expect nor rely on ubiquitous internet access. Today, we want it, need it, and have to pay through the nose to get it since it's a service primarily controlled by the cellular phone companies. But companies from Google to SpaceX are working on developing low-cost satellite constellations with the intent of providing worldwide internet access. They see the approximately 50% of the world that doesn't currently have internet access as a huge market. I read an article just this morning about how Elon Musk is looking at sites in Florida to build a low-cost satellite manufacturing facility. Consequently, before long we'll have options for affordable, always-on satellite-based internet service, even while at sea. Imagine Netflix on the night watch. We can't wait!

Robert & Rhonda
s/v Eagle Too

John Clark said...

I feel ya on the cell phone interweb issue. 2 months ago, I had whittled my plan down to $120 a month, 3 smartphones sharing 6 gigs of data, not bad for dirt dwellers. Then, wifey decides that it is time for her to "upgrade". This was when they (AT&T) were offering to double up the data "for Free" as well, but I had to move to a 15 gig plan (ching), because she "had to have" a tablet too. Something that AT&T is doing is financing your device for you, thus allowing you to not be under contract. Add up, new phone, new tablet, new plan, and tada we're up $100 more! And then just to top it off, lets add her parents lines for skits n giggles.

Let's recap, I spent months whittling down the cost to the YESSS!!! level. Now, I'm scared to look at this next cycle, 2 more days. but I'm expecting a $300 heart attack. It was nice reading y'all!

Get down to some of that pretty blue water and turn off your phones.

Richard Klyce said...

Does your Verizon plan work in the Bahamas?

Deb said...

Richard, yes it does but it's prohibitively expensive. When we go over there we suspend our service for three months without billing (a service Verizon offers) and the we use sim cards from Batelco in the phones. I did a post on this last year that goes into painful detail. It's Exploring Bahamas Communication

Richard Klyce said...