Friday, April 24, 2009

Communications in the Bahamas

Chris here... Instead of talking about our two days in Georgetown thus far, which have been a lot of fun (and windy and wet and included moving Pelican), I thought I'd leave that for Kristen and talk a little about communications in the Bahamas. If you don't care about communications, just skip this whole post - it's fairly dry.

Before we left I was hard pressed to find any really good sources of information on how to deal with Internet, phone calls, e-mail, etc. while here in the Bahamas. The information was all over the place and contradictory. This information is based on fact on opinion and is as of today - April 24, 2009. Also, keep in mind that this only covers Bimini, Nassau and the Exumas chain. We haven't been anywhere else yet, but I'll update the post as we visit other places.

First off - Internet. The first thing I will recommend is having a WiFi amplifier on your boat if you ever expect to get Internet while on it. Make sure you put the antenna as high as possible and that you keep the cable length as short as possible. There are many solutions for this so just do your own research on WiFi amplifiers. In our case, because of our limited time in preparing for this cruise and my limited time to do research, I bought a "marine" amplification system from Port Networks. There's an antenna on one of our spreaders, connected by very heavy duty cable (LMF400) to a unit in our mast locker. The unit in the locker then connects via ethernet cable to a small unit that we have placed at our nav station. It is important to have the antenna located as close as possible to the amplifier itself - every foot of cable will cause you to see fewer and weaker signals. The small unit at our nav station is hooked into 12v power and supplies power to the amplifier itself in our mast locker over the ethernet cable. The unit by our nav station also has an ethernet port that I can plug a laptop or router into. The unit is not cheap, and there are many less expensive options on the market. I purchased it from http://www.portnetworks.com.

Since we have multiple laptops on board, I wanted to create a small wireless network here. In the states you can use cellular broadband (i.e. Verizon Aircards) where wireless signals are not available or weak, so I picked a wireless router that also has support for connecting into cellular broadband. The unit is a Kyocera KR2. When wireless is available, it connects to the wireless amplifier. When it wasn't available in the US, I could connect via Verizon. My laptops then connect to the Kyocera via wireless and connect to the Internet via whatever method I set up. The Kyocera is a nice router and can be bought many places on the Internet.

Unfortunately, cellular broadband is not available in the Bahamas. Your only Internet choice is wireless. Using our amplifier, we were able to connect to very strong signals in Bimini (free), Nassau ($39/week for the cheapest one I could find) and now in several places along the Exuma chain. When you connect to wireless Internet in the Exumas, the organizations providing the Internet are connected to it via satellite. As a result, they block certain websites like Youtube. In some cases, like in Warderick Wells, they limit how much Internet you use. Warderick Wells was $30 for 3 days of Internet, capped at 100MB per day. In other places, like Sampson Cay, they don't limit your Internet, but it can be slow and inconsistent. So far, Georgetown has been the most inconsistent. Sometimes you have to reload your pages 4-5 times before they actually show up.

If you don't have a wireless amplifier, many towns have Internet Cafes that you can go to and pay for Internet by the hour. In some cases, even if you have a wireless amplifier you can't see the signals, so you still have to go in. While "open wireless access points" existed a lot in the US, there are very few here in the Bahamas. Most people secure their wireless, so you have to budget for Internet costs.

We've found Internet in many places throughout the Bahamas, and as I mentioned, most towns have Internet cafes, but it's definitely not as easy to connect to the Internet as in the US. All of a sudden, those e-mails might not seem so important.

On to telephone. We have three telephone "solutions" on Pelican. We bought a Skype account, have a Bahamian cell, and we also have an Iridium satellite phone.

With regards to Skype - it was great in Nassau and Bimini. In Warderick Wells, we used it some, but it quickly ate into our 100MB per day of bandwidth. We were able to use it in Sampsons Cay. In Georgetown, they threaten to cut off your Internet if you use Skype because of the bandwidth usage. Most places in the Exumas do not want you to use Skype, but I haven't seen whether they cut you off or not. The nice thing about "Skype Out" and "Skype In" is that you basically have a US number that people can call and that you can call regular telephones with. It's actually cheaper to call a Bahamian number through Skype than it is to use a Bahamian cell phone! You can also reach US 800#'s with it, which you can't do with a Bahamian phone. I would highly recommend a Skype account - for $60 or $70, we have unlimited outbound calling into the US and Canada, and $0.09/minute calling into the Bahamas. Unfortunately, it can only be used where there is good Internet, and where they permit it.

How about cell phones? Well, they use a GSM based cell phone system down here, so as long as you have a GSM phone you can roam in the Bahamas. The per minute costs are usually somewhere around $1.50-$2.00/minute to roam. BTC (Bahamas Telco) has a strangehold on the cellular and landline market down here and can pretty much set any price they want, and charge the US carriers anything they want for roaming. They actually got the Bahamian Parliament to outlaw Voice over IP services like Skype, but that's a difficult thing to enforce.

Since we had a Verizon phone that isn't GSM based, we decided to get a Bahamian cell phone. If you have a GSM phone already, look up online whether you can "unlock" it. Most carriers in the US make it so you can only use the phone with their service. An unlocked phone can be used with any service. Sometimes it's a series of numbers you punch in to unlock your phone, sometimes you have to send it to an unlocking company. If you don't come into the Bahamas with an unlocked phone, and you want to sign up with BTC for cell phone service, you have to buy a phone here. They don't subsidize the phone purchase though, so expect to pay at least $100 for a phone that's actually usable. While they have $50 phones, they are complete junk.

You can then go to any BTC office (on most major islands) or other cellular/electronics stores to buy a "SIM Card" for the phone (I put SIM card in quotes since not everyone knows what it is). A SIM Card is a little chip that is inserted into your phone that provides your phone's identity (i.e. phone number). You pay an activation fee of something like $50 (I can't remember the exact amount) and it comes with the SIM card. While they have monthly plans, the recommendation is to use prepaid phone cards. The phone cards are readily available everywhere. In Nassau you can't go a block without passing two or three people selling cards.

Per minute costs are $0.33/minute for calls within the Bahamas, and about $1/minute to call the US. You pay the $0.33/minute for incoming calls too. To minimize costs for your US friends, you can forward your Skype # to your Bahamian cell. You then pay $0.09/minute for the Skype side and $0.33/minute for the Bahamian side. In other words, ask your friends to call you back when you call them, and you're only paying $0.42/minute to talk to people in the US vs. $1/minute. There is cell phone coverage in many places along the Exuma chain, but once again it can be spotty in MANY places. You can go along many islands before you find a signal. Generally, we've found more signals in the central and southern Exumas than the northern side.

Cell phone amplifiers are a good thing. They actually do make a difference. Unfortunately, I have the wrong internal antenna on mine and can't really get it to work for longer than 60 seconds, but I get a MUCH stronger signal for those first 60 seconds!

To make sure you can ALWAYS communicate with the world via voice and e-mail, you need to buy a satellite phone. We bought an Iridium phone. We've heard too many stories of GlobalStar having very inconsistent service, although it's significantly less expensive (primarily because of their service issues). Our phone, with a data connector for e-mail, cost us about $1,550. 500 minutes of prepaid time cost us $695. Service activation was $50.

We also bought a 12 month subscription to OCENS.Mail e-mail service. This service will compress the messages and strip out graphics before sending them. You pay a per minute cost for data/e-mail so you want to minimize how long it takes to download e-mails. The OCENS.Mail service cost $59 to activate and $240 for 12 months of service. This solution has enabled us to call anyone from anywhere, and to access e-mail. We keep the phone charged before passages and stick it into our ditch bag as a piece of safety equipment.

For us, since I need to still communicate with my office, the satellite phone has been indispensable. The only thing I wish I added to it was a dedicated antenna mounted on the rail. Everytime I want to use it inside with my laptop, I have to open a hatch, stick a small wired antenna out and hook all the cables up. I can't do that when it's raining. It would have been another $350 though. By the way, you can buy used Iridium 9505a satellite phones for a lot less on eBay. I bought a new one because of timing (I couldn't guaranty where I'd be when the eBay seller went to send the phone).

Your primary communications tool to talk to other cruisers here is your VHF and an SSB. No, an SSB is not required. If you buy a shortwave receiver, you can pick up a lot of the broadcasts - like Chris Parker's weather. BUT, if you meet another boat and want to stay in touch with them, the only way to do it (except if you both have satellite telephone) is to use an SSB. To me, having an SSB has been indispensable. Thanks to Pelican's former owners for installing a great unit! The VHF is probably your most important piece of gear. We are on it all the time, as are our kids. Here in Georgetown, VHF68 is kept on all the time and boats are constantly hailing each other using it. It's how you talk to everyone. They also do a "cruising net" at 8am and talk about all of the activities of the day and other announcements (like if someone is going to the US they may ask if anyone else has mail to bring with them - mail is HORRIBLE down here, taking 30+ days to reach the US).

One other option for Internet that I did not mention is BGAN. BGAN is a lower cost "portable" version of INMARSAT. I know - lots of acronyms. Here's the long and short... BGAN will give you high speed (128k+ vs. 0.24k for Iridium) Internet. It's not quite cable modem speeds, but it's a fast connection. The equipment is similarly priced to Iridium, but you pay about $10/MB for Internet. My first reaction was to laugh at that huge price, but when you consider that it would take you almost 30 minutes at $1.29/minute to download a MB on an Iridium phone, you can start seeing the reasoning if you need a lot of Internet access. We don't have it, but it sure would be nice.

Iridium and BGAN are both available at many local and onlne companies. Just look for satellite phone in the phone book or look up Iridium on Google and you'll find plenty of places. I bought my unit from OCENS - they are recognized for having excellent support, especially for cruisers.

Anyway, I hope this has been somewhat helpful. Please feel free to e-mail us or post a comment with any questions.

3 comments:

Katie said...

This was the information that we've been looking for. Thank you so much for the detailed explanation.

Katie - Sovereign - Charleston

Anonymous said...

If you either use SSH or a VPN with your connection, the local wifi providers won't know you're using Skype, and the calls will be a little clearer since they are being securely tunneled.

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