Back in the summer of 2009 I wrote a post, Is WiFi Becoming the Unregulated Stealth Carrier of the Future?, where I covered some of my experiences using WiFi while traveling, especially to European destinations. For ten days in January, 2013 I traveled throughout the Central American country of Costa Rica and decided to use only WiFi for keeping my BlackBerry Torch 9800 and iPhone 5 in contact with the world. I also took my BlackBerry PlayBook which only supports a WiFi connection (its tethering to my BlackBerry Torch is very useful but would have required using a carrier for my Torch). My wife took her 4-year-old MacBook to keep up with her Facebook activities.
No Roaming Charges
My goal was to avoid any of the expensive roaming charges associated with using a wireless carrier outside of Canada. It would have cost $50.00 for 15 minutes of voice and 100 text messages and $40.00 for 10MB of data. Airplane mode was turned on for the iPhone; turned off the carrier connection on my Torch. Here is my “no roaming charges” experience.
I found WiFi was available at all five hotels on our tour. My Priority Club membership meant I had free WiFi at an Intercontinental Hotel. A lodge in the “remote” Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast had recently installed WiFi in their reception area.
A hotel near the Arenal volcano had good WiFi in their reception area and intermittent WiFi in the rooms which were essentially multi-room chalets in rows up a mountain side (so we could all view the volcano clearly). The J.W. Marriott at Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast had WiFi but with a reduced charge due to our association with a tour. The Quality Hotel for our last night prior to flying home had free WiFi. But here was the real surprise: our tour stopped at several wayside restaurants for lunch; they all had WiFi. And even some of the “tourist” experiences, such as a Crocodile Tour, had WiFi in their store.
I also bought a one hour WiFi subscription during our two stopovers at Miami airport and finally had a chance to check out GoGo Inflight during our flight home from Miami to Toronto. The San Jose, Costa Rica airport had free WiFi.
So while I did not have Internet access while riding the tour bus (where cell phone use was discouraged) or on the riverboat tours in the various jungle rivers, it was readily available at every stop along the way. Sometimes you had to ask for a password but most staff had the answer immediately. The FourSquare map on the left provides an indication of where I checked in; large dots indicate multiple check-in points.
(As a side observation the local riverboat tour guides all had mobile phones to share the locations of various bird and animal sightings.)
Using IP-based Communications
I had three options for free calls back to Canada or Europe (Belgium, Italy): Skype, BBM Voice or Rogers One Number (from my wife’s MacBook). One significant advantage of these services is they all use HD Voice, providing much clearer audio on voice calls than any carrier can provide. Facetime was also available but is not a normal mode for my activities; Facebook Messenger was also an option but again something I use infrequently. At various times I used all of the first three in context, including a Skype video call, but a couple of observations.
Voice/video call blocking over Skype does not suffice any more. At the Park lodge, the WiFi blocked Skype voice calls; try Skype Test Call and you were cut off five seconds into the call. Yet I was able to make a very clear 15 minute voice call to an Italian acquaintance using BBM Voice (and now I can reveal he was testing out BBM Voice on a BlackBerry Z10). I attempted a FaceTime call; it rang but the other party did not answer (all of these offerings should have the equivalent of Skype Test Call).
The lodge was probably still trying to recover the cost of supporting the relic shown to the right but I did not see anyone using it during our two days there. On the other hand Skype needs to start working to ensure it is not indiscriminately blocked where others dare to provide free voice and video communications.
As for text messages, I could access and respond to all my BlackBerry text messages using Rogers One Number on my wife’s MacBook. Not many messages but was handy when I needed to reset a Google 2-step password, etc. I also exchanged iMessage messages with another iPhone user in Canada over WiFi even though my iPhone wanted me to disable Airplane mode.
If I have one complaint it’s with the Internet service provider at the Intercontinental and Marriott (was the same one for both). Why do I need to log back onto their service every half hour or so? This was essentially a time wasting nuisance with no financial gain to the service provider or hotel. And why do they not recognize that hotel guests are usually going to have more than one device that requires WiFi access? Between the two of us we had six devices.
Why was WiFi intermittent at Arenal Springs? Too many WiFi access points. It seems like they put an access point in each chalet and they overlapped. Devices wanted to drift amongst the access points. The meshing of access points is still a technology under development.
Bottom line: WiFi is becoming a much more reliable and available unregulated Stealth carrier as an alternative to roaming services. I was able to maintain any necessary communication (not that I want to do much while on vacation) and follow my email, Twitter and Facebook feeds on any of my mobile devices with no difficulty. In fact, I also watched the BlackBerry 10 launch event from that Marriott hotel using my BlackBerry Playbook – it had the fastest web browser. And I was able to track the reviews and follow up news during the remainder of my trip via Twitter and Google+.
My final cost for Internet service over the ten days? $20 at the Marriott, $9 at Miami Airport and $4 for GoGo Inflight. These gave me unlimited calling (except GoGo Inflight) and data.
Note: last week Rogers announced new rates forthcoming for roaming in the U.S.
Update: Today TruPhone announced they are going to offer WiFi with their TruPhone+ service that combines use of both GSM and WiFi for network access:
‘Truphone+’ seamlessly integrates the company’s unique Global GSM network with its internet calling application. The combination of these two technologies enables those with no GSM coverage to make and receive calls using WiFi in their homes and offices or in a WiFi hot spot. Importantly, customers will often benefit from improved call quality.
Truphone + uses “intelligent routing” to automatically choose whether to carry the call over GSM or WiFi by making real time measurement of signal quality. The user needs only to ‘press call’ to make a secure connection over the highest quality link available.
With an elegant user interface designed to streamline the user experience, Truphone+ puts more control in the hands of the user. A call cost indicator displays the precise per-minute cost so the user can decide when and where they want to make a call, thereby eliminating bill shock.
One more reinforcement of WiFi as the Stealth carrier for mobile communications.
The best value of the trip: we checked out the cost of staying at the J.W. Marriott if we had gone on our own. Two nights would have cost two-thirds of the entire cost of our trip with nine nights of hotels, bus travel, three meals a day and a very knowledgeable and effective tour director. If you want to get a great cross-section of Costa Rica’s geographical features and wildlife, Caravan’s tour is highly recommended.
- What’s Eating Your Data Plan? (blogs.blackberry.com)