One of the biggest challenges of living on board a boat and moving along the less travelled road is the ability to communicate. In today’s connected world, we have found it very challenging to keep our selves connected to the internet, and at times even to make voice calls.
It is very important to be able to stay in touch. We rely on the internet to give us weather so that we can plan our journeys safely, and to know the best places to anchor for predicted conditions. We use our communications for social media, to keep our friends and family updated on our movements. We use the internet to maintain our blog.
But communications is one of the most frustrating things for us. More specifically the cellular providers are at times irritating, at other times enough to make me shake with fury. We have tried a number of service providers, and they all seem to suck equally. We are stuck with using GSM service providers, as we have to be able to use our unlocked cell phones in the US, Canada, in New Zealand, and in the Bahamas. So Verizon, Sprint and others that use CDMA are out of the question for us.
We both have a cell phone, which we keep active so that we can keep our US phone numbers. Today we are using AT&T for the cell phones. We also have a cell hotspot router on board. The Alcatel router is sold by T-Mobile, and works pretty well when we have T-Mobile service. We have found that this is pretty much zero in Canada and Maine. We have friends that used T-Mobile in the Bahamas, but it did not work for us there.
We also use a Wi-Fi extender made by Pepwave, when we have a marina with good Wi-Fi. Good Wi-Fi is pretty hard to find, although we have a good friend on another Nordhavn, who owns and operates On Spot Wi-Fi. We find that we look forward to staying in marinas with OnSpotWifi, as these are always fast and reliable. The Pepwave itself offers me many frustrating moments when I try to connect to new Wi-Fi signals. It took me hours to get an update so that the security was allowed by my computer.
We also use a Garmin Inreach satellite tracker when we are underway. This device is turned on when we depart, and sends a signal to a GPS satellite every 10 minutes. We invite our friends and family to a link and they can watch our progress when we are underway. It is a good safety factor as well, as our location is marked and if we had an emergency we would be easily (we hope) found by rescue organizations. It is also reassuring to have fellow boaters watching our progress closely, and at times they even contact us by text message on the Garmin if we appear to be deviating from where we should be heading, to check if all is okay.
We can also download weather updates on the Garmin, but it is expensive to do so. Satellite time is still very costly, and for us not really an option aside for use as a tracker.
Our first season in the Bahamas, we found communication to be expensive and frustrating as we had to continually top up with BATELCO manually, which was often difficult when travelling around remote islands. And they didn’t offer much data on the pay as you go plan. The second season, however, BATELCO had better data plans for less money than in the US. I had to remove the sim card from the router to activate newly purchased data, which was not very convenient. We also purchased SIM cards for our phones, and found it often easier to hotspot off the phones, which Batelco allowed much more freely than our US providers.
Sadly, on returning to the US this year, re-establishing our US cell service was not as straightforward as we’d hoped. There were constant challenges with the T Mobile coverage for our data, but we thought at least we had the AT&T phones working. Turned out, both were useless in Canada. In fact the best option for data in Canada was to use Gordon’s NZ phone as a hotspot when he was on board.
Jenny had a beyond frustrating phone call with AT&T in Canada about being able to text her family in NZ. It took an hour on the phone with them before someone finally bothered to check that her plan didn’t cover international calls or texts. Ted upgraded his plan but it didn’t really help, as AT&T’s Canadian partner is Rogers, who had little to no coverage in Nova Scotia.
When we returned to the US from Canada recently, it was my turn to have the long and fruitless conversations with T Mobile (after two separate hour long phone calls someone finally checked and found we were in an area with zero coverage, despite their coverage map showing differently).
And then we had the latest saga with AT&T. We expected to have communication issues when travelling to remote Pacific islands, but not in mainland US with two different national providers. It continues to present challenges to us and other long term cruisers. And for Jenny to be able to efficiently work remotely with NZ, she needs to have good, reliable, high speed internet. In fact, it accelerated our return from Canada to the US in less than ideal conditions, to ensure she had reliable internet for her four weeks of work in September. Fortunately we managed to work out a solution while at NE Harbor in Maine while she really needed it
We are probably spending too much on communications, but it is hard to know what options we really have. All providers so called ‘unlimited data’ is only for a phone. It cannot be used in a hotspot or Wi-Fi device. AT&T do not allow any hot spotting on their plan unless you purchase the $85 plan which has a limit of 10GB of hot spotting.
I purchased data plan from T-Mobile for the Alcatel for $75 for 15 GB, which seems to work okay. I find that often the service is very slow. Jenny and I both have AT&T unlimited $85 monthly plans. And so we spend $170 per month on phones and $75 for data, and $25 for Inreach: $275 per month for communications. Over twice what we spent in NZ which included satellite TV.
Seems like we should have awesome communications for that money, but I really feel like we are getting shafted but don’t really know what we can do. I will lower the AT&T plans soon. But I need to wait until the billing cycle, or as I learned I am really getting screwed. We are disadvantaged as we don’t have a home in the US so cannot bundle our mobile plans, Direct TV etc for our boat.
So life is not all fun and games here afloat. Sometimes I wish I could just be incommunicado.