Internet on a boat can be hit or miss. No FIOS, no cable, no phone line. We’ve tried various methods, but this year we think we have it licked. And it turned out to be so simple even we could manage to figure it out.
We are using an unlocked 4S iPhone as a hotspot.
This is what we did. When I upgraded to a “6” last time, I went though a complicated process to unlock my old “4.” It involved emails to AT&T, my wireless carrier, to provide them with information about my phone – all located in Settings/General. I also spoke with an AT&T customer service rep who was very helpful. For the most part, carriers are not interested in assisting you with unlocking one of their phones. But even I finally figured it out. (You can also buy an unlocked phone on eBay.)
We brought the unlocked phone to the Bahamas, to the local BaTelCo (Bahamas Telephone Company) store. In many settlements, such stores are staffed one day a week. This is the one in HopeTown, next to the BTC tower.
They will sell you a SIM card, insert it, and take your money to create a sort of prepaid phone for you. From the pile of money in your account, you can use your phone to purchase a data plan – which expires within a time certain or when the data has been used, whichever occurs first. There are various plans, from one day to one month. Five GB is $49.95. We think we’ll probably use $80-$100/month for emails, blog posts, and Skype. Obviously more if we are downloading movies, etc. You can top off your account at a BTC store or even other commercial establishments, (but not online).
After you purchase your data plan, BTC will send you a confirmatory text. Then go to Settings and activate cellular data.
Now your phone will download your emails and access the internet. To interface with another device, go to Settings and select Personal Hotspot.
Now you can turn on your computer or iPad or another phone and connect to the internet via your wi-fi setting, entering the password BTC has provided. Or you can connect using Bluetooth or using a USB cable (the same cable you use to charge your phone).
Your phone will tell you when you are connected through another device.
We each have a computer and each computer prefers a different connection: mine likes the USB cable and his favors a connection via wi-fi. Whatever. Sometimes it balks and sometimes it’s slow. Sometimes the computers won’t connect at all – they’re fickle. But most of the time this works perfectly and is reasonably fast. A “5” or “6” phone will support LTE – faster.
It beats trying to Skype in a restaurant or buying a cup of bad coffee to get internet or pirating a signal with a booster or competing for bandwidth with a harbor full of boats all trying to use Wimax or OII (Inter Island Internet) at the same time. We used all these methods last year – not very reliable or convenient.
This really works – and it was so easy. In contrast, when we first sailed to the Bahamas in 1995, communication with home was primitive. We’d contact a friend of a friend living near the InterCoastal Waterway and beg them to accept our mail. Friends and relatives could send them letters and packages (way in advance of our expected arrival date), which would somehow be delivered to our boat. Some post offices would also hold mail for boats. And we could make calls from pay phones while in the States. When we got to the Bahamas, there were no more mail drops until we reached GeorgeTown in the Exumas. The local grocery store there would fax back and forth for free and accept mail (it generally took a few weeks to receive it). Sometimes we’d stand at the top of a rock on some little island and try to make a collect call from a BaTelCo phone at the bottom of a transmission tower.
And before that, in the 1970s, when we cruised the North Channel of Lake Huron in Canada, this is how it worked. You radioed the marine operator on channel 22. When he acknowledged you, you’d provide a landline phone number and he’d dial it. Once the connection had been made, you could converse with that person – you on your radio and them on their phone. The catch was that everyone in the harbor could – and would – listen in on the conversation. Except that they could only hear your transmissions over your radio, but not what the person on the phone was saying. It made for great evening entertainment – sort of like a radio show, with people on boats extemporizing the missing half of the conversation. Fun – a lost art. (The same sort of phone call can still be made on Single Side Band SSB now.
It’s a new world for us. We kind of like it.