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BTC vs. Aliv, Bahamas Cell Phones for Cruisers

During our cruise around the Bahamas this year, we have tested the new cellular service from Aliv as well as the service from BTC that we have used in years past. For folks coming to the Bahamas, staying connected is usually a hot topic since things work a little different in the islands. We all use the cellular data connection regularly to check weather and to keep in touch with friends and family back home. With the cheap and fast data available in the Bahamas, we’ve also found it is possible to stream movies with the use of a VPN service.

These question and answers are focused on cellular data, but the same principles apply to getting a signal for voice and texts too.

Working from paradise.
Is there good cellular coverage in the Bahamas?
Yes, there is very good coverage almost everywhere you will spend time. Unfortunately, neither BTC nor Aliv have made their current coverage maps available, and we have never found an employee of either company who knows answers to exact coverage questions.

Does it work everywhere?
No, cell towers are set up to cover populated areas of the islands. If you are near a settlement, you will generally have excellent LTE coverage up to five miles away and good 3G coverage to up ten miles away.

One notable exception where you may want to spend some time is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, where the nearest towers are at Highbourne Cay to the north and Staniel Cay to the south. The central Berry Islands between the towers at Great Harbour and Chub are also in a blank area. Some cruisers report getting a good signal by hoisting their phone/hotspot up the mast to get better range, and this may work to squeeze out a weak 3G/slow data signal to check the weather.

Are all areas covered by LTE data?
So far, we have personally confirmed that the Abacos, the Berry Islands, Grand Bahama, Nassau, Eleuthera, the Exumas, and Long Island have LTE towers.

We’ve had difficulty figuring out if other islands have been upgraded to LTE. Bimini, Andros, Cat, and the other islands of the southeast Bahamas have 3G, but LTE has not been confirmed. If you have any first-hand experience, please comment below, and we will update this list.

What is the difference between BTC and Aliv?
BTC, formerly Batelco, is the primary service provider in the Bahamas. BTC has towers all over the islands.

Aliv is a new entrant in the market, and so far has opened markets in Nassau, Abacos, Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Exuma, and Long Island. In places where Aliv has not yet built their own towers, their users roam on BTC towers for no extra cost . When Aliv roams on BTC, the speed is cut substantially. Our BTC SIM card will have 65mbps download while our Aliv SIM roaming on BTC will have .5mbps download. That's the difference between easily videoconferencing or downloading a movie in a minute vs dropped calls and extended download times. 

Who has the best rates?
This completely depends on how much data you use. If you just check email and weather, BTC probably has better rates. Their best deal is 15GB for $35 for one month (lower rates for less data are available too).

Aliv seems to be the better deal if you are data hogs like us. You can purchase 30 GB for a week at $30 or 300 GB for a month at $120. Notice that Aliv sells their plans as “unlimited,” but they have a fair-use policy which sets (you guessed it) limits. 

How do I get it service from BTC or Aliv?
You need to get a SIM card (or a new device) from the company of your choice. The easiest way to get one is to visit a store. Nearly every island has a BTC office, but in smaller settlements, it will likely only be open for limited hours on one or two days a week. For example, we found the BTC office in Green Turtle Cay was only open 10:00 to 3:00 on Thursdays.

Major settlements have Aliv stores (if the island has Aliv service).

Alternatively, you can order a SIM card from MrSIMCard online before you leave. This costs a little bit more, but you will have service the moment you land in the islands instead of waiting to find a card.

Won't I need a long-term contract?
No, both BTC and Aliv are selling pre-paid service. You are going to give them X amount of dollars for Y amount of data, voice, and texting that is good for Z amount of time. So if you only need it for a month, you only pay for a month. If you use your monthly allotment, you buy another month's worth and start a new month. Once you stop paying, you stop getting service. Easy. Welcome to the rest of the world, America.

Is there Wi-Fi in the Bahamas?
Hotels, marinas, bars, and restaurants have Wi-Fi available. It is slllloooooowwwwww. Few are usable, and many seem to have a Wi-Fi network but are not connected to the internet! We have been unable to count on Wi-Fi for any purpose, but if you just need to check and send email occasionally, it may work for you.

Can I bring my own phone?
Yes, but it must be UNLOCKED.

Additionally, not all devices work with all providers. Most devices made to run on Verizon or Sprint’s networks (CDMA) will not work in the Bahamas. However, some device manufacturers are now making their devices universal. For example, we have an iPhone 6 which was purchased from AT&T, then unlocked and used successfully on Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, BTC, and now Aliv.

My contract with ___ is over, so my phone is unlocked, right?
Not necessarily. Unlocking a device requires a firmware update for the device from your provider, which you will likely need to request.

Can I just purchase a new phone or device?
Of course, both BTC and Aliv will be happy to take your money for that.

I have ___(AT&T, Verizon, T-mobile, etc.), will my phone work?
You will be paying for international roaming, which will be expensive. Also, since you are not a “local” company, your service will be given a lower priority. We aren’t exactly sure how these agreements come about, but depending on how well your company negotiates with BTC you will get slow internet (2G or 3G).

T-Mobile offers an international plan, will it work?
Yes, T-mobile users successfully roam all over the Bahamas. Some plans limit you to slow 3G data connections, so make sure you know what you’re getting with your T-Mobile service. It will likely cost you far less to get much faster, more reliable data by getting a BTC SIM card while in the islands. If you are still under contract, consider reducing to the least costly T-Mobile service while in the islands to keep your contract going and to keep your phone number, and using a BTC SIM card for your data while in the Bahamas. BTC rates are so low that there isn’t a reason to not get one if you have an unlocked device.

How much do phone calls to the US cost?

Aliv plans include calling to the US at no extra cost. BTC charges their standard rates per call.

Is the internet as fast as the US?
It is cheaper and faster in the islands. You only pay for what you need to use if you run out you instantly buy more (at the same price).

Is it as reliable as the US?
No, not really. The US has far more cellular towers and more redundancy built into the network, so if one tower goes down, you can probably get a signal from another. In the Bahamas, you’re likely working with one tower. If it loses power or has technical issues, you’re out of luck. 

We’ve had random outages in the northern Exumas and the Abacos. Hope Town (which you would think would have excellent service since it is a hub of tourism for the area) had no service from their local tower. We were able to pull a weak 3G signal from Marsh Harbour, but it was very slow. The same was true on Man-O-War. When their local towers worked the service was excellent, but when they went down we were left in the dark. 

In the Exumas, the Aliv signal seems to disappear for a minute or two about 5 times a day, pushing you onto BTC roaming and slow speeds. BTC completely went offline for about two minutes one morning. I know - one or two minutes is un-noticeable, unless you are on a videoconference call at the time! 

What is the difference between LTE and 3G data?
LTE is a newer fast technology. We have seen download speeds of up to 65 Mbps in the Bahamas on their LTE networks.

3G is an older generation technology that has the advantage of working farther from the cellular tower. You can often get a few bars of 3G up to 15 nm from a cellular tower. Download speeds on 3G usually range between 5 - 8 Mbps.

Who is faster – BTC or Aliv?
Based on our extensive and very unscientific testing, Aliv wins most of the time. We have seen amazing speeds on Aliv, the record is 65 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload.

The exception to this is if you have Aliv but are roaming on BTC (in areas where Aliv does not have their own towers). In these cases, Aliv is very slow (.5 Mbps compared to a BTC SIM card at 65Mbps) 

This isn’t to say that BTC is slow. In general, BTC has speeds that are greater than anything we’ve ever gotten in the US on AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon. We usually see about 45 Mbps on BTC. This is likely a factor of network crowding: busier networks are slower networks. Aliv, being newer, is probably less crowded. Some friends have told us that in Nassau on days when cruise ships are in town that the data speeds are terrible.

Is it good enough to stream movies/videos?

LTE service is very fast for streaming. 3G might work, but will probably be low quality and glitchy. We have used both LTE and 3G for 2-way video web conferencing. Once the signal goes below 2 bars (50%) of 3G service, it is too slow for us.

You can stream Netflix without any modifications. If you’re planning to watch Hulu, or Amazon Prime Instant Video, you will need a DNS or VPN provider to route your web traffic through a server back in the States. None of the providers serve the Bahamas, so they will give you an error message and will not play video while you are outside of the US. You will have to research which service to use because Netflix and co. are wise to this tactic and are blacklisting more and more VPN servers all the time. We use Express VPN  and choose the Washington, D.C. server to watch Amazon Prime Video. 

Do I need a hotspot/MiFi?
Hotspots and MiFis are devices that you can use for connecting multiple devices online.

Another option is to tether your other devices using your phone's “personal hotspot” feature. Both BTC and Aliv allow you to use the hotspot feature for no extra cost, eliminating the need for a MiFi.

Aliv offers a popular hotspot plan which they call unlimited (but it is limited to 300GB) for $120. For the same amount, they offer an unlimited plan for the phone, which gives you the same 300GB plus voice and texting. Note, some folks have told us that the Aliv MiFi does not roam on BTC towers, much limiting its usefulness for traveling cruisers!

Do you have any tips to get better speeds? My connection is never that fast!

Yes, we’ve learned a lot about getting the most out of these cellular connections.

1. Your distance from the tower is the number one factor. The indicated signal strength on your phone should give you an indication: if you have 4-5 bars of LTE, your speeds should be excellent. If you have a weak 1-2 bars of LTE, then your speeds will likely be equal to or less than a 3G signal. If this is the case, we’ve had luck switching our phone’s network settings to disable LTE (3G only). This will then change from a 1-2 bar LTE situation to a 3-4 bar 3G situation, which results in better speeds. If you’re on 3G and only getting 1-3 bars, you will need to get closer to the tower or employ a booster.

2. Any Wi-Fi network you connect through is going to slow it down, including the phone’s hotspot feature. It’s far faster to turn off the phone’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and connect with a cable. If you are using a router, plug the phone into the computer directly instead for the best speeds.

3. Trying rebooting your phone. We’ve had several glitches and rebooting the phone has re-registered it on the network and solved the problem. Not always, but sometimes.

What’s the difference between an antenna and a booster?
Different devices have different antennas and different transmission strengths, and therefore some can work farther from the cellular towers than others. Some marine connectivity systems include large, external antennas to improve your reception.

A booster is a signal amplifier, which will actually boost the signal strength of your device and help you pick up weaker signals from a greater distance. These will require their own power source (a 12-volt outlet if it is made for vehicle use). These are less commonly known but are available on Amazon for about $200.

We've used our booster for several months now and couldn't be happier. We have tested speeds and signal strength with and without it on many occasions and the booster will always add 1 or 2 bars of signal, which nearly always adds to our connection speeds. If you are more than two miles from the tower, the booster helps significantly and has more than doubled our download and upload speeds. 

Will my BTC card work next year?
BTC requires you to add money (“Top Up”) your account at least once every 90 days to keep the SIM card and your phone number active. Once it’s past the 90-day limit, you must buy a new SIM card. You could just add the minimum amount of $5 for each Top Up if you want to go this route, and then use the money on the account next season.

Aliv has said that the card will last for a year before it expires if you have at least $1.00 on account and that you simply log into their website and purchase a new plan when you return.

I have BTC, how do I check my balance in dollars or how much data I have left?
From the phone keypad, dial *201# and follow the prompts.

I have BTC, how do I purchase a data or combo plan?
From the phone keypad, dial *203# and follow the prompts. If you don’t have money on account, you will need to add it from the BTC website “Top Up” page or visit a “Top Up” location first. *Note, it is worth it to always enough money to buy another data package on the account. If you run out of data, you can’t go to the Top Up webpage and add money. So you will be out of luck until you can find a physical store where you can Top Up.

How do I check my balance, add money, or purchase a plan from Aliv?

Visit bealiv.com or download and use their app.
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5 comments

  1. Very informative! Cruisers to the Bahamas are fortunate to have your detailed report and findings. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent information!
    Thank you very much!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow - this a great resource for Bahamas cruisers!

    ReplyDelete

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