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Mobile Internet: A 2015 Update on Caribbean Cruising and WiFi-Enabled Travel

We decided to spend Christmas a little differently this year and joined 10,000 of our closest friends on cruises to the Western Caribbean taking in Cozumel and Grand Cayman with a few extra days at sea. If you haven’t tried it, put it on your bucket list. Christmas week is a bargain and about 50% cheaper than the same cruise to ring in the new year. Rates start at about $300 per person for the 5-day cruise. You’d be hard-pressed to dine out for a week in your home town at those prices. Today we want to provide an update on the dramatic changes in Internet connectivity not only aboard ship but also in navigating 1,000 miles of highway to get there. Let’s start with the glamorous part.

Surfing the Internet Aboard Ship

What a difference a couple years has made. On previous cruises to Alaska and the Eastern Caribbean, Internet service was spotty at best and cost prohibitive on sea days. Typical connection rates were $25 or more per hour. You found yourself scrambling to find a bar with cheap Internet service every time you hit a port. But that was then. Here’s our 2015 update.

Carnival which owns the majority of the cruise ship companies (9 different brands) prides itself on making cruising affordable for almost any traveler. So we qualified. They’ve also revolutionized Internet service with rates on some ships (including ours) as low as $5 a day for unlimited (but basic) Internet connectivity. Here’s a typical pricing plan, but ours was even less expensive. $70 got us unlimited premium Internet service including Skype (one user at a time) for the entire 5-day cruise, and performance was surprisingly good, roughly triple the speed of the $5 a day plan and equivalent to or better than cellular 3G service regardless of the time of day. During early mornings, dinner hours, and when docked at a port, the speed difference from DSL was barely noticeable. Part of this is due to Carnival’s new hybrid Internet technology which blends satellite service with strategically placed Internet towers along your itinerary. The way it works is simple. You login with your account number and birthday, and you can stay logged in as long as you like. If another member of your family wishes to use the service, they simply login on a different device with the same account number and birthday. They’ll be prompted whether to bump you off. Clicking YES transfers the Internet connection to their device and terminates your connection. With three people, it worked amazingly well and was a wonderful testament to what it means to share. Complete details of the WiFi@Sea Internet program are available here. The rollout will be complete by the end of the first quarter in 2016.

We made roughly a dozen Skype calls to test the quality of the calls. With a couple of exceptions, the calls were roughly equivalent to what you would expect using a cable modem connection. With the two bad calls, it was obvious within a couple seconds, and the simple solution was to hang up and try again.

If you’re an Asterisk user, connectivity to an office or home server was easy by making a free call with Skype Connect which we documented just last week. Once connected to an AutoAttendant on the home server, using DISA to make secondary calls to other destinations at minimal cost was a no-brainer. The setup is simple, and we showed how to do it over 10 years ago. Today, it’s built into the GUI. We routed the incoming Skype calls to a Stealth AutoAttendant on the Asterisk server. By pressing an unannounced key during the welcome message, we were prompted for our DISA password. After entering it successfully, we were prompted for a number to dial. In our setup, this includes any number supported by our dialplan: local extensions, 10-digit NANPA numbers throughout the U.S., Canada, and 18 other north American countries as well as special dial codes to retrieve voicemails and other Asterisk functions.

Bottom Line: Do your homework before you book a cruise. Decide what your must-have’s for the cruise are and then compare prices.

Surfing the Internet from Your Car or Motorhome

The other eye-opener was the advances in cellular service along America’s interstates. 4G service now is available almost everywhere. Average download speeds were in the 20-40 Mb range. We used 7.18GB of data during 16 hours of travel. That works out to roughly a half gig per hour of travel with three users. YMMV! Funny how quickly 4G service rolled out once the (not so) Baby Bells got their monopoly back and could charge by the megabyte. We were one of the lucky ones to snag one of the few remaining Verizon unlimited data plans on eBay. Verizon now has tightened the screws and doesn’t allow transfer of the plans to others. But, if you’re one of the lucky ones that still pays over $100 a month for an unlimited data plan (Verizon just quietly raised the monthly charge by $20), then here’s some information for you. First, as part of the FCC’s 4G spectrum auction, bidders (Verizon in this case) were required to agree to the following condition as laid out in 47 C.F.R. 27.16:

(b) Use of devices and applications. Licensees offering service on spectrum subject to this section shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s C Block network, except:
(1) Insofar as such use would not be compliant with published technical standards reasonably necessary for the management or protection of the licensee’s network, or
(2) As required to comply with statute or applicable government regulation.

When Verizon won the auction, they reluctantly acknowledged a customer’s ability to move a SIM card from one device to another so long as the new device was on Verizon’s approved devices list. It doesn’t mean Verizon hasn’t dragged its feet on adding new approved devices, however. The important takeaway from this is that moving between approved devices appears to be safe even though there have been some reported problems. You’ll know whether you’re using a Verizon-approved device by examining your Verizon account to see if a picture of the new device shows up once you insert your SIM card.

So what does all of this have to do with surfing the Internet from your vehicle? Well, you have two choices. You can use your existing smartphone, enable tethering, and have multiple passengers surfing the Internet at 4G speeds with unlimited bandwidth. Or you can purchase a Verizon-approved Novatel T1114 4G Router on eBay and move your SIM card there for trips. Just be sure you buy one with the required 3.5W power adapter. Then add a $20 150W Power Inverter, and you’ve got a Mobile WiFi powerhouse plus a POTS phone connection… in your car.

If you’re one of the unlucky ones that doesn’t have an unlimited data plan with Verizon Wireless, there’s now another option if you live in an area with Sprint service. HINT: Sprint works great along most interstate highways in the United States. For $50 or less per month, you can set up a WiFi HotSpot in your vehicle with unlimited data using Karma Go. If you use our signup link, you get $10 off, and we get a $10 referral credit. There’s a 45-day money-back guarantee. For a great review of Karma Go, go here. And 2016 promises more choices with most new GM vehicles sporting an integrated WiFi HotSpot.

UPDATE: Karma Go this week began backing off from its unlimited Internet pledge. Seems these companies never learn the bait-and-switch lessons from those that preceded them… or they don’t want to. You can read all about it here.

1/18 UPDATE: Karma Go today announced that they were restoring the original 5 Gbit performance of the product but would cap usage at 15GB/month after which performance would be throttled to "speeds good enough for emailing and messaging."

NEWS FLASH: Beginning January 12, 2016, unlimited Internet plans return to AT&T Wireless for those that also subscribe to DirecTV or U-Verse. Details available here.

There’s more good news from our 1,000 mile travel adventure. We were late to this party, but what an awesome addition for those that travel for a living or just for vacations. If you’ve never tried Waze, add it to your smartphone right now! Not only do you get turn-by-turn directions to any destinations, but you also get road hazard alerts, automatic traffic rerouting to avoid bottlenecks, cheap gas price alerts, and… did we mention that in 1,000 miles it didn’t miss alerting us to every single speed trap. Police departments are government bureaucracies that have grown just like the rest of federal, state, and local government agencies. We counted nearly 100 police vehicles doing nothing but traffic enforcement. On 70 mile per hour Interstate highways, our unscientific survey showed that speeds increased to 75 miles per hour with no police presence compared to 69 miles per hour when a speed trap had been identified. It was readily apparent that truckers and frequent travelers have been using Waze long before us. What we kept asking ourselves was whether the cost of 100 police officers + 100 police cars + an enormous fuel bill was really worth it to slow folks down (momentarily) by 6 miles per hour. We hear a lot about government waste, but the police seem to get a pass on frugality by claiming they’re saving lives. We just didn’t see much of a correlation. It looked more like a game of cat and mouse. Happy New Year everybody. Don’t Drink and Drive!

Originally published: Monday, December 28, 2015

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  1. Ward,

    You’ve got a great way of making the most boring technical details exciting to read. Thanks for another great blog post. 🙂


  2. So what did the change in spectrum use rules mean for using a Verizon phone itself as a hotspot? Do you still have to pay extra for that service? Seems like that issue would also fall under the spectrum rules on not impeding access, right?

    [WM: If you use the HotSpot option from Verizon, you still have to pay for it. But the rule says you can deploy any app you like which would include HotSpot apps from other providers.]

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