2013-01-28

Internet while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, without paying Bell/Rogers/Telus a fortune

For connected Canadians venturing out of the country, one question is whether to forego Internet access while away and get caught up on emails etc. upon their return, or pay the outrageous data and voice roaming fees imposed by the big Canadian carriers. A lot of people just leave their cell phone at home so they can't accidentally rack up a huge roaming bill.
The new mobile companies like WIND and Mobilicity have better rates than the big companies, especially for travel to the US, but it's still prohibitively expensive for anything other than extremely light usage.

Updated January 28 to add some product links.

Knowing that we had a Dominican Republic vacation with some friends on the horizon, I looked into our options to see if there was anything affordable. The web site APN Changer has information about the mobile carriers in several countries and what sort of prepaid plans they offer. For Internet access you have a few options: a SIM card and data plan, a USB 3G/4G modem, or a WiFi hotspot. To use the first option you'd need a device that operates on the same cellular frequencies as the destination network, and it would have to be an 'unlocked' device that works with any carrier. For most Canadians the frequency band issue needs to be carefully researched to see what their device supports, but the main roadblock is device locking.

Mobile carriers offer device subsidies to entice consumers into signing long-term contracts, and to make it even more difficult to jump ship, they 'lock' the phone so that it only works on their network.

Since there were 6 of us travelling together on this trip, something we could share - cost and access-wise - seemed to be the best option. The plan was to visit the Claro booth at the Punta Cana airport upon arrival and purchase one of their 3G prepaid plans. For about $35 you can get 3GB of usage that lasts 30 days and they throw in the USB modem. Using a small laptop or even an older unlocked Android phone we could create a WiFi hotspot to share. The cheaper Claro plan offered 700 MB for 7 days... enough for us, but you had to buy the USB modem so it ended up being as expensive as the 30 day / 3 GB plan.

Our plan went off the rails however when we found the Claro store at the airport closed. I'm not sure if that's because it was a Sunday or because we arrived before noon and they just weren't open yet. In any event, we needed to find a different Claro store or go to plan 'B'. To complicate things, one of our group member's luggage didn't arrive in Punta Cana, so we were a bit preoccupied with figuring out contingency plans based on how long it might remain AWOL. On the morning of day 2 while trying to get updates on his luggage's whereabouts, Mr. M found a vendor at the resort that rented mobile 3G hotspots. The price was a little higher at $60 for a week of unlimited usage, but it saved us having to venture off the resort to find a Claro store, and the little Huawei hotspot (an older version of this unit) saves us from having to use a laptop as a hotspot to share Internet. The service is from Orange - the other big wireless company in the Dominican.

The battery on the little hotspot only lasts about 4 hours between charges, but I brought a separate Lenmar battery pack that charges any USB-powered device, so that gives us 8 or 10 hours before we have to recharge. Four or five of us can check emails and annoy our Facebook friends with pictures of palm trees, sun, and sand. That's become the morning routine as we let breakfast digest.

The connection is a little too slow to allow live streaming of NHL games, but it's OK for viewing the highlights the next day or listening to the Internet feed from the Ottawa sports radio station.
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