Swift

Getting Internet While Cruising

Connectivity has been a recent hot topic aboard Independence as both of us have started picking up some online work and our goal of becoming "digital nomads". Fast Internet is critical now and I thought I would write down some of the lessons we’ve learned in first few years of full-time cruising. This is the first post in a series we will do about our preparations to stay connected for work.

Luckily, we didn’t NEED to be connected the first year. That gave us the freedom to not really worry about it and to experiment. 
Connected on the go...Tiny's Hurricane Hole Bar, Long Island, Bahamas
5 Main Lessons Learned:
Don’t Count on Wi-fi Alone
We researched all sorts of wifi boosters before we left and asked a lot of cruisers. What we found, in actuality, were very few open networks that we could connect to. Not wanting to commit before I knew what I should spend money, I bought this simple USB wifi card with a huge 9dbi antenna. This was a perfectly acceptable solution for experimentation. If you had only one computer on board, you could totally mount this baby in a waterproof housing, get a proper marine antenna and call it a day. 

We used this onboard to help us connect at marinas where we had a passcode and could just barely get a signal. It helps you get a stronger signal, sees more networks and you can put the antenna outside and as high as possible. The downside is that it is of limited use...very few marinas have good wifi. Sure, you can get online and check email, but you won't be web conferencing because it's just too slow.

One note: it wasn’t always easy to get this thing to work on my Mac. Check your OS compatibility before buying. #firstworldproblems

Here’s a tutorial on how to use the Alfa card in a waterproof case as a booster (it’s an old article, but it all still works fine and is dead simple)
http://www.practical-sailor.com/blog/Build-Your-Own-Long-range-WiFi-Antenna-for-Less-than-100-10081-1.html

Cellular is the Way to Go for Dependability
After traveling the ICW we learned there was really only one cellular carrier that works everywhere: Verizon. AT&T, Sprint, Mobile went miles and miles (which means days and days for us!) without any signal at all. Often Sprint would have a voice signal but not data.) North Carolina and Virginia are RURAL…and Verizon is king in rural America. When we spent a month in Ocracoke (a popular tourist spot!) we were surprised to find that neither of us had a usable cell phone.

Luckily, my UNLOCKED iPhone 6 (and all iPhones since, I believe) are true world phones that work on every network. You can get a prepaid SIM card from Verizon for $35/month for 3 GB data, and you can add another 3 GB/90 days for just $20. Those rates are basically identical to Ting (cheaper if you include talk and text) and cheaper than T-Mobile or AT&T. Verizon has consistently gotten 30Mbps or more the entire trip! Ting is often 15-20Mbps…still good, but not as good.

BTC is the Bomb!
We picked up a BTC prepaid SIM card last year for our travels in the Bahamas. BTC is their local cellular provider, formerly Batelco. There is no monthly fee, you just add more money to the account when you need it. 15 GB of data is $35. Yes, you read that right. That’s about 20% the cost of data in America. What is up with that? It must suck, right? Au contrair mon ami…it is awesome. There are towers almost everywhere, and they are fast LTE. I recently posted to Facebook and asked cruisers to report in their findings. Many reported that it worked faster than their home cable internet. Need to make a call or do a web conference? Look at your charts to find the nearest tower, and find an anchorage as close to the tower as you can. If you plan to go back, you can keep the same card and number IF you add $5 at least every 90 days. That keeps your account active, and you can use up that money when you go back.

No Need for a Mifi — Just Tether!
I see lots of folks online swearing by mifis. I don’t get it, why pay for two devices when you already have the smartphone? I’ve been tethering data from my cell phone since like 2002. I think it’s never caught on because the cell phone companies didn’t want you to know you could do it, and then when people got smarter the companies tried to charge for it. AT&T even went so far as to remove the function from the iPhone they sold you. Now it’s swung around again, and you can do it simply. Again, your iPhone might have to be UNLOCKED. iPhones can tether data via wifi, Bluetooth or USB cable. USB is by far the fastest, followed by wifi and then Bluetooth comes in slowest.

Satellite is Nearly Useless and Too Expensive and Too Slow
We bought and installed an Iridium Go! last summer. It was great offshore when coupled with the Predict Wind membership. Amazing data to have at your fingertips. But…the cost is amazing too. The cost is almost as astronomically high as the speed is astronomically low. The unit and equipment were $1200. The unlimited plan is $128 per month. I’ve never found a good use for it beyond Predict Wind, so that’s another $250/year. It is useless any other time than offshore. You can’t check regular email or work from it (in my opinion). We are keeping the unit, but disconnected the service for now while we are near-shore and Bahamas cruisers.

Here is a quick run-down of places we've been recently with details:
Vero Beach, FL (mooring field) -- in town with excellent cell service from all providers. Verizon LTE regularly provides more than 30 Mbps. Marina wifi extends to mooring field with multiple access points, one of the best networks we have seen, but daytime speeds usually average 0.5-1.5 Mbps...unacceptably slow for web conferencing. Sitting in the lounge and at off-peak times we usually see about 5 Mbps.
St. Augustine, FL (mooring field) -- Excellent cell service from all providers. Lots of wifi networks, but none unlocked. Marina wifi out of range for us (we were on the farthest ball). Did some work from a Pub one night...
Ocracoke, NC — Verizon only. We didn’t know so we had no service (not even voice) from our Ting phones (even the one on Sprint). Wifi was available, and the anchorage is surrounded by the village, so it worked okay. Not fast, but it was something. We quickly learned that everyone on the island uses their phone number as the wifi password…handy!
Ocracoke Harbor (Silver Lake), North Caroline...less connectivity here than you might think!
Deltaville, VA — If you've ever spent time in Deltaville, you won't be surprised by the lack of connectivity. As first timers our first season, we were shocked. Sprint worked, but not well with spotty coverage and no data. Verizon for the win again! This is true for everywhere in the lower Chesapeake Bay we visited.
Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park -- there is no connectivity here. We used out Iridium while at Warderick Wells to check the weather. This is the middle of Nowhere-ville and is great for vacation but not working online.
Hope Town, The Abacos, Bahamas — I honestly don’t remember. There should be lots of wifi here, but it is all locked. If you are on one of the balls owned by the Inn or a restaurant, you might be able to get their passcode. There is also a local WiFi provider, Out Island Internet OII, who you can purchase connection time from. There is excellent BTC LTE coverage and I think it’s cheaper than OII.
Hope Town Harbour...I can think of no better place to work from.
Georgetown, The Exumas, Bahamas — No wifi in sight…but we anchored a long way from town. Excellent BTC coverage.
Amazing anchorage at Red Shanks, wonderfully isolated yet only a mile from Georgetown. Excellent BTC coverage!
Salt Pond, Long Island, Bahamas — when anchored near to Tiny’s Hurricane Hole (cruisers bar) the wifi is pretty good. Good place for a booster. Excellent BTC coverage.
Salt Pond, Long Island -- the BTC is just out of the frame here...excellent service!


So, in conclusion, we are killing the Iridium, keeping Verizon (in place of the Ting/Sprint account), getting BTC again for the islands, and working on a cheap solution to work as a wifi/cellular booster. More on that next!

Do you like to stay connected while cruising or on vacation or do you leave your devices behind? 

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for this! We may be cruising in the States this season and I've been pondering what to do in terms of cellular coverage (we're currently on AT&T). Loved BTC - usually worked great for us. We used to have one of those Alfa devices. It worked okay and then it died. I never bothered replacing it.

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    1. You are welcome! I had AT&T and it only worked in big cities like D.C. It didn't work at all in North Carolina and rural Virginia. We love being able to pay as we go with Verizon.

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  2. I think you know our answer to that. :-) When you are a digital nomad, decent internet is one of the most important things onboard, and also one of the most frustrating things. You can always invent your own product (and call it “The Indie”). :-)

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    1. Yes, it can be frustrating! Ah, The Indie will never happen....why would we try and compete with perfection?!

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  3. T-Mobile is good for international roaming in many countries. We had good coverage in Bahamas (via BTC) and here in Antigua (via Digicel). Unlimited data at no extra cost. Catch number 1: 2G speed (slow, but enough for us). Catch number 2: "While roaming internationally, your data throughput may be reduced and your Service may be otherwise limited or terminated at any time without notice."

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    1. A lot of people use T-Mobile! I personally can't imagine 2G though..... how would I ever stream new Game of Thrones episodes? Priorities!

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    2. 2G is extremely slow, a sure test of one’s patience, but, when we were in a certain area in The Society Islands during cyclone season, we had 2G as the only boat in the anchorage. It was just enough to keep an eye on the weather and share our info with our cruising friends. Sometimes, it is better than nothing. :-)

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