Caribbean 3G Phone and Internet Access
by Ian Hopkins
“Will my cell phone work in the Caribbean?” “Can we get internet there?” These are common questions for newly arrived cruisers in Paradise. Even old salts, if they see barefoot local kids talking and texting on mobile phones and their own phone does not work or they have patchy WiFi in the anchorage, may need to revisit these questions. Because the answer to both these questions is yes. Everyone can get very good phone and internet service almost everywhere in the Caribbean and at reasonable prices. The solution can be very straightforward and works way beyond the Caribbean. The reason why, as I see it, comes in two parts, the mobile (cell) phone system and the wavebands available.
It begins with the two main mobile/cell phone systems operating around the world, CDSA and GSM. CDSA is mainly found in North America. Yet, even there, AT&T and T Mobile use the GSM system. The two systems are incompatible. Phones made for CDSA are permanently dedicated to one provider. However, virtually identical phones may be manufactured for another CDSA provider or for the GSM system. GSM uses SIM or mini SIM cards. These fit into a slot in the phone often under the battery.
GSM phones are the most common phones worldwide. A GSM phone supplied by any telecoms provider will be locked to that provider, but this lock legally cannot be permanent. Locked phones can be unlocked. GSM model phones bought from third parties like Amazon, Apple stores and independent high street retailers should come unlocked and accept any providers’ SIM card. Some phones come with more than one SIM card slot, which can be useful. Mini SIMs are just cropped SIM cards. Phone stores can do this by hand.
The Caribbean is predominately GSM. I have found the most prominent GSM provider, with dedicated stores in most towns, is Digicel. Based in Jamaica, it also operates GSM mobile/cell phone services in Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda, Bonaire, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Dominica, French Guiana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Martinique, Panama, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago and Turks & Caicos, as well as other places around the globe. This article is based on experience in the ABCs, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica and use of pre-paid (a.k.a. PAYGo — pay as you go — Gofone) options.
Have an unlocked GSM phone? Then just join the line at a Digicel phone store and buy a SIM. Take your passport for ID and know your marina address, just in case. Typically, a phone SIM is free with a prepayment for minutes of around US$10 in local currency. A prepayment balance can be maintained by topping up your account with amounts from as little as $5, using cards sold in many shops, and from street top-up vendors or via Digicel's internet site or their stores. You can always check your balance with a free call. Getting a new SIM for each country avoids roaming charges. The SIM phone number is said to remain active for about three to six months if left unused. There is a choice between storing contact numbers in the phone memory or on the SIM. And international SMS (texting) is always cheap.
A top-up to a phone is a “money for minutes” transaction. There are bonuses for spending more, making regular top-ups and using the internet to top up. Digicel has an app for phone top-ups. Registering on-line with Digicel allows one to top-up any Digicel phone number in any country using any designated bank account located anywhere.
Digicel sold its Central American operations to América Móvil. América Móvil is probably the world’s largest telecommunications corporation outside China and the major telecoms operator in Mexico. It operates mainly GSM mobile/cell phone networks usually called Claró throughout the countries of Central and South America except Venezuela. It also operates in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic using both GSM and CDSA systems. From our experience in Colombia, where there are many top-up street vendors, buying GSM SIMs and top-ups from Claró follows the same pattern as Digicel. Data top-ups are similar too.
In addition to Claró, in the Dominican Republic, there is Orange. Orange is a large European telecommunications company with global operations. In the Caribbean, as well as in the DR it operates in Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barthélémy, St. Martin, French Guiana and Dominica. We heard it provided better coverage in the DR’s rural areas, although neither Claró nor Orange covered everywhere along sparsely populated parts of the south coast of the DR. Venezuela also had GSM prepaid options several years ago but getting a SIM in a shopping mall there then involved being fingerprinted, which seemed excessive.
Not only are phones manufactured for either GSM or CDSA but they are also made to operate on the frequencies, the wavebands available in different countries. The most useful phones operate on the four most common bands used in Caribbean countries. These quad band GSM phones operate on 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz. Faster services, 3 and 4G, in the Caribbean usually use available bandwidth at these frequencies. While 2100MHz has been allocated as a Penta band in Europe for more and faster services.
In the Caribbean, Digicel uses 900MHz 1800MHz and 1900MHz as well as 850MHz on some islands, while 850MHz and 1900MHz are Claró's common GSM bands. European countries use 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz.
There are many basic GSM unlocked quad band phones available. For example, from Amazon there are several for less than $30. Many smart phones (internet data, text and talk) models are GSM. Some are quad band, some others Penta band. But faster, more expensive phones using more bands are not always better. 2100MHz is not used in the Caribbean. In the USA, some 4G phones use 1700MHz. AT&T use 1700MHz, in conjunction with former TV channel 55 in the 700MHz band range for 4GLTE. But, these bands are not used elsewhere.
In the Caribbean there are pre-paid plans available for Blackberries and smart phones with data and talk time bundled together. Also, there are pre-paid SIMs for data heavy, non-phone devices like laptops, USB modems and 3G capable tablets. The benefits of quality internet whenever in sight of land can make these more expensive options worthwhile. Our 3G iPad 2 from the Apple Store came unlocked. It operates on common bandwidths and accepts any mini SIM. The Digicel phone stores sell data SIMs with prepaid data for a day, weeks, or several GBs for a month. Yes, GBs, around 5GB for less than $50. The store staff will crop the SIM, fit it and activate it.
Online there is a dedicated Digicel self-help website for users of laptops, USB modems (dongles) and tablets. It is here, when you are registered, that you can check the balance of GB and days left on your prepaid account. However, top-ups for data and smart phone top-ups are not possible directly from this website. Also, the cost of data top-ups may not match the values of the top-up cards or online top-up options available. In our experience, data top-ups are best done at the phone store.
To use a locked or CDSA phone which has WiFi capability, another solution may be to use a mobile internet “MiFi” hotspot device. These are GSM. They use SIM cards and can provide WiFi for several devices including laptops. An example is a Huawei Mobile WiFi E5331. It is quad band 850, 900, 1800 and 1900MHz. It is mobile, lasting for several hours on one battery charge. It might also suit people with several devices who tend to be boat based. From Amazon, for example, it can come unlocked and costs around $65.
I have not mentioned all the competing telecommunications operators in the Caribbean even though they operate GSM. Many of them are long established and now often have new stylish names like LIME and Chippie. I have not overlooked them because they provide less, I just have not had experience with them.
Useful web sites:
To buy GSM phones and Prepaid SIM Cards before leaving the USA, go to a site like Telestial. www.telestial.com.
A list of Caribbean mobile (cell) phone companies and their systems is at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Caribbean_mobile_phone_companies.
Ian Hopkins sails with his wife, Westa, aboard Marsha Claire in the Caribbean in the winter months.
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