The topic of using your mobile phone when outside the US is filled with anecdotes, legends, and occasionally, even some facts. Follow any online posting and you'll see a confusing mix of information. One user swears the phone worked for the entire cruise while another couldn't even get a signal, and a third paid a small fortune whenever they made a call.
This article looks at the issues of using your mobile phone when cruising in the Bahamas, one of the most popular cruising destinations, and offers some advice about how to stay connected without blowing the entire cruising budget.
A basic understanding of mobile phone technology will help make the issues clearer. For those of you who have followed the entire Mobile Phone series, this will be a brief review. If you are new to our series, you may wish to read the 01 - Introduction article called Using a Mobile Phone Aboard Your Boat for more in-depth information. You can also refer to the glossary for definitions of the terms.
There are two types of cellular technology: GSM and CDMA/TDMA. Both technologies are used in the US. GSM technology is more universal and is widely used everywhere outside the US. GSM uses small SIM cards to hold account information which enable a particular phone for use. These SIM cards can be easily moved from phone to phone allowing you to simply move your account to a new phone. It can also be used to switch accounts on your existing phone - switching from a US account to an international account, for example. AT&T and T-Mobile are the major US GSM carriers.
CDMA is a better technology but hasn't been adopted as widely outside the US. Verizon and Sprint are the major carriers for CDMA in the US. CDMA phones do not use SIM's. If you wish to use a different mobile phone, your mobile provider must program the phone in order for it to be enabled for your account. This requires you to physically go to a mobile carrier office, making account switching much more of a chore. This is an important consideration when cruising in remote locations.
While there will be instances where your CDMA phone will work internationally, it can't be relied on. If you will be cruising outside the US and wish to use your mobile phone, you should obtain a GSM phone capable of international roaming. However, if you're going to the Bahamas for a few weeks or months, you don't necessarily have to dump your CDMA plan - we'll provide some alternatives later.
Making and receiving phone calls on your mobile phone when outside the US requires your phone to be able to roam internationally, and specifically to roam in the country you are visiting. Doing this successfully will depend on agreements held by your mobile provider and on the specific capabilities of the phone you have.
For your mobile service to work reliably in a foreign country your mobile provider must have an agreement with a mobile provider in that country that allows you to "roam" on their mobile network. These agreements will lay out the charges involved -- which are usually quite high. Major US mobile providers have agreements in many countries. Before leaving the US you should check with your provider to see if they have service where you are going. While talking to them, make sure you understand all of the charges involved in making and receiving calls and using data. You will typically need to activate a global service for your account. We'll go over specific information for the major US mobile providers below but it is still critical that you call before you go. Service and charges can change without notice.
Once you have determined that your mobile provider supports service in the Bahamas, you will need to take a look at your mobile phone. Will it support international roaming? There are four frequencies used for GSM service worldwide. Your mobile phone will have a radio transmitter-receiver that works on one frequency (single-band) or on more than one frequency (multi-band). Using your phone internationally typically requires that you have a multi-band phone. Frequencies will vary from provider to provider and from country to country, so you need to determine if your current phone supports the required frequency. Mobile phones in the Bahamas require 1900Mhz support for GSM use.
Information on your phone's capability can be obtained from your mobile provider's web site. Links are provided below when we discuss specific US mobile providers. If you have a quad-band phone, which is a phone that supports all four bands, the phone will work in any country.
It is possible to use your existing mobile phone in the Bahamas but expect it to be very costly - between $1.99 and $2.99 per minute for voice. This applies to calls made to numbers in the Bahamas as well as calls made back to the US.
The Bahamas has a single mobile network provider, BTC (Bahamas Telecommunications Company).
It is often casually called "BaTelCo". BaTelCo is a government run organization under their Ministry of Works and Utilities. BaTelCo provides all telecommunications for the Bahamas including landlines and wireless communications. Unfortunately, BaTelCo has the reputation of being one of the worst telecom companies on the planet and most any cruiser who has dealt with them will confirm this.
BaTelCo's mobile network is primarily GSM but they also have some CDMA tower support. Unfortunately, BaTelCo does not provide location information for the CDMA towers. This explains why some CDMA users will experience mobile coverage in the Bahamas while others will have little or no service. It all depends on how close your boat is to a CDMA tower.
AT&T has a roaming agreement with BaTelCo. The agreement covers calls from the Bahamas to the US and calls within the Bahamas. However, you may not be able to place calls to other international destinations. AT&T's agreement covers both voice and data with several different plans to choose from. Standard roaming charges are $2.29 per minute for voice. The AT&T World Traveler Plan is $5.99 per month which reduces your per minute charge to $1.99. Your phone must support GSM 1900Mhz.
For data usage, your phone will need to support GPRS. All GSM phones capable of data usage support this older 2G capability. You can choose their pay per use rates which are $.0195/KB, or select one of their data plans. A 20MB Data Global Add-On is $24.99 per month, while a 50MB Data Global Add-On is $59.99 per month. If you go over your plan's amount you'll pay $.005 per KB. You do not need to have a US data plan to sign up for one of the Data Global plans.
Not sure if your current phone has international support? The AT&T web site has a Traveler's Guide that walks you through the process.
The last time we were in the Bahamas, we used one of our AT&T accounts for email access. To download and send a normal amount of email a couple of times a day cost us about $5 per day in roaming and data charges without any of the special monthly plans.
Verizon does not have an agreement with BaTelCo but can provide CDMA support in some locations. In addition, if you have one of Verizon's Global Phones you can make calls using either CDMA or GSM. Check out the Verizon Wireless web site for the latest Global Phones. Verizon offers CDMA support in Bimini, Eleuthera, the Exumas, Grand Bahamas (Freeport), New Providence (Nassau) and Paradise Island. The standard roaming rate is $1.99 per minute for CDMA and GSM calls.
Verizon also offers pay-per-use Internet access on your PC with their GlobalAccess service. Pay Per Use access costs $0.02 per KB. It requires a GSM connection and either a Verizon Global ExpressCard for your PC, or one of the Global ready notebooks by Lenovo, or Toughbook. Do NOT purchase Verizon's GlobalAccess monthly plan which costs $129.99 per month and does not cover the Bahamas.
You can see which Verizon phones support international roaming by going to the Global Ready phones on their web site.
Several years ago we were in the Bahamas with our Verizon CMDA phone. We successfully used our Verizon account for voice calls on several occasions although we know other users who have experienced problems with their Verizon accounts. It appears there are BaTelCo towers that allow a Verizon connection and some that don't. BaTelCo does not have an official policy. Our experience is that Verizon voice calls work, except when they don't. We would not recommend depending on a Verizon mobile phone in the Bahamas.
T-Mobile has a roaming agreement with BaTelCo and supports GSM. To use your T-Mobile account in the Bahamas you first need to activate WorldClass International Roaming. There is no activation fee. Voice calls will cost $2.99 per minute. Your T-Mobile phone must support GSM 1900Mhz.
To determine if your existing phone supports international networks go to the International Services section of their web site. You can also rent an international phone from T-Mobile but it is quite pricey - $99 per day plus $4.99 per minute and a $25 roundtrip shipping and handling fee.
You can use your T-Mobile phone to access the Internet. You will need an international phone with GPRS Internet support, a T-Mobile Internet rate plan, and the WorldClass feature activated on your account. You then pay $0.015 per KB for usage. T-Mobile does not offer flat rates for Internet usage. However, if you have a Blackberry device, they offer unlimited email access in the Bahamas for $19.95 per month.
Sprint does not have a BaTelCo roaming agreement but it is still possible to use a Sprint GSM phone in the Bahamas. The phone must support GSM 1900Mhz. Roaming charges are $2.29 per minute for voice and $0.016/kb for data.
For a list of Sprint GSM phones that allow international roaming go to their web site.
There is limited support for Sprint's CDMA phones in Freeport, George Town and Nassau. Note that most Sprint phones are CDMA. Make sure you know what you have if you are a Sprint customer.
Coverage for all US mobile providers is spotty in the Bahamas with the most reliable coverage being in major locations such as Freeport and Nassau. Searching the web sites and even calling the providers directly is of little help in determining actual coverage in the Bahamas.
If you want to use your mobile phone while cruising the Bahamas, your best bet is to consult fellow cruisers. The ActiveCaptain web site offers a means of sharing actual experiences with mobile phones. Every Marina and every anchorage provides an "Internet Access" field. It is under the "Services" tab for Marinas. Use this section to provide data about mobile coverage - the date, where it worked, where it didn't, and information about the signal quality.
Getting your mobile phone to work from the Bahamas might seem like a grim and difficult process. Fortunately, there are some creative solutions for cruisers who depend on their phones. Options exist for local service and WiFi phone access.
OBTANING LOCAL SERVICE
An advantage of GSM is the SIM capability. You can use this feature to obtain a local mobile phone number and account which will allow you to make your calls within the Bahamas at lower local rates. Doing this requires that you have an "unlocked" mobile phone.
Many mobile carriers will "lock" their GSM phones allowing you to only use the phone with their service. Putting a SIM from another carrier into a locked GSM phone will not work. To use the phone with a different carrier will require the phone to be "unlocked." It is possible to purchase phones which are unlocked from web sites or on eBay. These phones are often higher in cost than the same phone purchased from a mobile carrier as the carrier is able to make up the cost of the phone from your monthly service charges and long-term contracts.
Techniques for unlocking a phone vary between phone models and phone carriers. A search of the Internet can provide information about how to unlock your phone yourself - in some cases this is relatively easy. There are also services that will charge a fee to unlock your phone for you. Sometimes your mobile carrier will unlock your phone once your service contract has expired, for a fee of course.
If you have an unlocked GSM phone you can purchase a local SIM from BaTelCo. This may be a good strategy if you will be cruising for an extended period of time in the Bahamas. The SIM card together with the right multi-band, unlocked GSM cell phone, will allow you to have a local cell phone number for the Bahamas while paying local rates - no roaming charges and no service contract.
For example, if you are going to be in the Bahamas for 3 months and expected to make a fair number of calls, it might make sense to get a BaTelCo GSM account for those 3 months. BaTelCo's Cybercell is a SIM that you place into your existing phone. Now the phone you are familiar with, that has all of your contacts, etc. will work on their system - with your new BaTelCo phone number. When you leave the Bahamas, you simply slip your original SIM back in and you're back with your old phone number and provider.
Pre-paid vouchers for Cybercell can be purchased from various locations throughout New Providence and Grand Bahama. There are also a variety of online sites which sell BaTelCo Cybercell SIM's. Many can even sell or rent you an unlocked GSM phone. For example, Telestial sells a prepaid Bahamas SIM card for $89. This includes a $20 airtime credit. All incoming calls, even ones from the US, are $0.33 per minute which is the local rate for local calls. You can recharge your minutes online or locally at a variety of tobacco shops, convenience stores, gas stations or newspaper stands.
If you absolutely, positively must be connected at all times, your best bet is a satellite phone. One came installed on our boat. We used it once (or twice) when too far offshore for cellular service and it worked great. Expect data transfer speeds to be slow and expensive, but your phone will work almost anywhere in the world.
ClearPoint Weather offers an Iridium satellite phone service for $0.99 a minute for voice and $0.59 a minute for data. There is no sign up fee, but in order to receive these rates you must buy a SIM-card for a one-time fee of $35, pay $30 a month for the service (the fee Iridium charges ClearPoint), and subscribe to ClearPoint Weather with at least an annual subscription costing $95. Of course, in addition you'll need a Iridium phone, about $2,000 by the time you're done (ouch). This may be a reasonable option if you plan on using their weather service anyway and will be using several hundred minutes a month, or if it is imperative that you maintain continuous coverage.
Would we have a satellite phone if it hadn't come with the boat? Hard to say, but it certainly gives us added peace of mind when venturing far offshore.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
We know this series is all about using your mobile phone on your boat but sometimes we just have to realize that there may be a better way. We have found that the most economical way to communicate while cruising outside the US is via VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). Our favorite application is Skype. The software is free and easily downloaded from their web site, www.skype.com.
With VOIP, all you need is a WiFi connection to make real calls. With Skype you can make calls to another computer running Skype anywhere in the world and talk for as long as you want for free. This includes free video calls.
You're not limited to calling other computers. Skype has low cost ways to call landline phones both in the US and internationally with SkypeOut. With your Skype account you can call any number in the Bahamas for only $0.102 per minute. Make calls to phones back in the US for only $0.024 per minute. You simply add credit to your account in increments of $10 and call minutes are deducted as you use them. These prices are extremely low. For example, a one hour call back to the US will cost a total of $1.44! We use ours with a headset and find the quality to be as good or better than your typical mobile phone.
Skype also offers plans with a single monthly fee. There is no such plan for calling within the Bahamas. However, if you will be making frequent calls back to the US you should consider their monthly plan for the US. For $2.95 per month you can make unlimited calls to landlines and cell phones in the US and Canada.
If your friends and family back home don't use Skype, you can use SkypeIn to obtain an online number for your computer. They simply dial the number from their landline or mobile phone and it "rings" on your computer. If you're not available, they can leave a message on your voicemail. The online number costs $18 for 3 months or $60 for a year. Note that this might not be appropriate while cruising if you need uninterrupted phone access as it requires a WiFi connection in order to receive calls.
We have found accessing WiFi service in the Bahamas to be relatively easy. Often it has been available for free from marinas, local shops, restaurants, etc. On occasion we have paid for service using Out Island Internet in the Abacos. They cater to cruisers and you can pay by the day, week, month, etc.
Of course, a good source for WiFi service information is the ActiveCaptain web site. The Internet Access data field allows Captains to enter information about Internet access at a marina. Check this field when you are looking for a place to stay for the night. In addition, there is an Internet field for anchorages that provides information about the type of service Captains have found. Make sure to check these fields and add your own information based on your experiences.
Skype has a version of their software called Skype Mobile which will run on some mobile phones and provides the same service you can get today on your laptop. We have tested it and while it works, there is room for improvement. Downloading and installing the Skype Mobile software is fast and simple. Enter the same account you use for your laptop and you are ready to call. If your mobile phone has WiFi capabilities and you have a WiFi connection it may make sense for you. It's a lot easier to bring your mobile phone ashore to access a WiFi connection than lugging along your laptop.
You might think that Skype over a 3G cellular connection is a tricky way to get around your limited voice minutes if your have an "unlimited" data plan. For short, limited use it will work. Unfortunately, the mobile providers have caught on very quickly to this scheme and now every "unlimited" data plan is limited to 5 GB per month. This is more than enough for most data uses as long as you aren't using Skype or video (YouTube, SlingBox). If you go over the 5 GB allowance, you'll realize some expensive overage fees.
We have found that sound quality using Skype Mobile from a mobile phone to a laptop is surprisingly good with one caveat. When using the built in microphone on the phone to talk, the laptop user will hear an irritating echo. It makes it too distracting to communicate effectively. This occurs because the microphone on the mobile phone is picking up the speaker sound and sending it back through. Turning on "Echo cancellation" under "Settings" in Skype Mobile will remove the actual voice feedback but leaves a static sound as an echo instead. It's an improvement but it's still a bit annoying.
Adding a Bluetooth headset will help considerably with this problem. However, users report varying results depending on the phone and headset used. Skype is silent on headset compatibility for their mobile version. Our advise? If you have a mobile phone with WiFi capabilities and a Bluetooth headset, download the free software and give it a try. If you plan on buying a Bluetooth headset to work with Skype Mobile on your phone, make sure you can return it if it causes an echo.
BUT IS IT LEGAL?
In December 2008, the Bahamian PUC (Public Utilities Commission) issued a warning about VOIP use in the Bahamas. The text of the law referred to in this communication reads, "A person who installs a telecommunications systems or telecommunications equipment and/or customer premises equipment that is directly or indirectly connected to a telecommunications system, which has not been approved by the Commission shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine of ten thousand dollars."
It is not clear how to interpret this. Some believe it applies only to services like Vonage or MagicJack that require a piece of equipment physically connected to the Internet cable. Others feel it is directed to companies in the Bahamas actually installing the equipment and not to end users. How this law might affect using Skype over wireless on your boat in unclear. However, we know of no case where a boater has been cited even though many have been using wireless VOIP in the Bahamas for years.
Phone usage in the Bahamas can be difficult and frustrating. Try to find and use WiFi for data connectivity and low-cost voice communications. Then again, you're in the Bahamas. You might want to turn off the electronics and just enjoy the beach!
- 01 - Introduction
- 02 - Boost Your Signal
- 03 - Locating Cell Towers
- 04 - Calculating Line Loss
- 05 - Navigation
- 06 - Adding a GPS
- 07 - Memory Cards
- 08 - Weather Forecasts
- 09 - Tides and Currents
- 10 - Other Applications
- 11 - Connecting a Laptop
- 12 - How to Buy a Phone
- 13 - Palm OS
- 14 - Windows Mobile
- 15 - Apple's iPhone
- 16 - Blackberry & Symbian
- 17 - Bluetooth Headsets
- 18 - Power Accessories
- 19 - The Bahamas