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Internet Adventures In The First World

As an American who’s living and working in Panama, I rely heavily on internet connectivity. I’m a freelance writer and WordPress website builder, so I need the internet to work quickly and all the time.

Now I’ve spent the past month back in the US, and I have to say, I’m not impressed with my internet connectivity here!

The first couple of weeks were a vacation. We attended two college graduations, one near Boston and the other in Rochester, NY. We visited with our kids in both those areas, and in Vermont. We even got to see our LA-based son, who flew East as a surprise.During that time I managed just fine, using a combination of my smart phone and hotel WiFi. Of course, I wasn’t actually trying to work, just stay in touch.

Then it all fell apart.

The Smart Phone

Before we left Panama, I had ordered a new smart phone. The current phone was four years old, and while it works well in other respects, it can’t handle data speeds faster than a single G – and usually not even that. I planned to use the new phone as a mobile hotspot when I didn’t have WiFi available, and for this I would need a fast connection.

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The phone was waiting for me when I arrived. It handles 4G beautifully. The problem is, a lot of the areas we were traveling to and through didn’t have coverage, at least with my carrier (T-mobile).

I found myself consistently in situations where I didn’t have any signal, for phone or for data. It wasn’t a big problem as long as I had other WiFi to use, but when we arrived in South Carolina it came back to bite me.

The Working Vacation

After all the running around in the Northeast, we headed south to visit with other family and to enjoy a couple of weeks of “working vacation” at a lakefront house in South Carolina. I had been assured that the owner was installing some form of internet I’d be able to use. Not true.

We arrived, to discover that
1. There was no internet at the house and
2. My phone got the slowest of slow data signals on the Edge network – not even a single G!!

“OK,” I thought. “I’m a resourceful person. I’ll find a Starbucks or someplace where I can hunker down and do some work using their WiFi. I found Starbucks, a 25-minute drive away.

Four hours later, I emerged feeling completely shaken (not stirred). In that four hours, I had managed to do about an hour and a half’s worth of work. At that rate, I’d be able to put in a solid eight-hour workday if I stayed for 24 hours! Not very sustainable.

The next day I went back for a couple more hours. This went a little better, but still not a realistic way to complete the amount of work I needed to do.

The Solution…

That evening my brother- and sister-in-law came over. She has her phone service through Verizon, and she was getting a strong 4G signal on her phone. She set it up as a mobile hotspot for me and it worked beautifully.

The following day, my husband and I drove the 25 minutes into town. We had a mission! We marched purposefully into the Verizon store. A very pleasant young man stood by the door with a tablet computer, taking names as customers came in. After we waited for quite a while, another young man came over to help us. We explained to him that we were visiting the area and were looking for a short-term solution that would give us internet access. Basically, he didn’t even want to talk to us unless we were signing up for a two-year plan.

Eventually he confided that we could purchase a mobile hotspot device for $200, then buy 3 gigabytes of data for a mere $60 per month, prepaid. (That works out to $20 per gigabyte – pretty darned expensive.) Disappointed, we left.

“Let’s go down the street to Best Buy,” I suggested. “They work with the major carriers, maybe they can help us.”
A pleasant young man named Steven showed us a mobile hotspot that would work with Verizon, for only $100 instead of $200. Monthly data plans were the same.
“Do you know if you get a good AT&T signal where you’re staying?” he asked. “Because if you do, I can give you a better deal.”
We explained that we had no way of knowing whether there was any AT&T signal, let alone a good one. He pulled up a map to check.
“The maps are pretty accurate,” he told us. “If they weren’t, their competitors would crucify them.”
He zoomed in on the map, and my husband was able to locate the exact spot we were staying. The map showed the best possible signal – 4G LTE.
“We’ll take it!” I announced.
$150 later we left the store with a mobile hotspot device and a data plan that would allow us to use 5 Gb of data in the month.

. . . Or Maybe Not

I have to admit, I’ve been spoiled. Not since the early days of AOL internet dial-up service have I needed to think about how much bandwidth I’m using. We’ve had DSL or cable internet for over a decade.

In Panama, Cableonda provides our cable internet. It’s reasonably fast, and reasonably reliable. Panama being Panama, however, I quickly learned I need a backup system in order to truly stay connected all the time. My backup system uses a mobile WiFi router from Claro. The device set me back about $80, and monthly service is $44. It’s prepaid, so if I don’t want to use it for a month or two (like now), I just don’t pay. When I’m ready to reactivate it, I go to the Claro store (there’s no way to do it online, or not that I’ve found yet) and start it up again. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it works.

It gives me 3G or 4G speeds, which is fine for a backup device, and I’ve never given a thought to the amount of bandwidth I’m using. I watch Netflix, upload and download files, work on websites, and don’t worry.

It can handle connections to up to 10 devices at a time, according to the literature. Just for fun I’ve run it with seven (that was all we could scrounge up at that moment). That means my husband can use it at the same time. He likes to spend his online time with Facebook, news sites (which are big bandwidth hogs), and YouTube (which also eats up a lot of bandwidth).

Remember, that’s in Panama, a “third world” country where I live in a small town 4-1/2 hours away from Panama City. Now I’m in the US of A. I’m a couple hours away from Atlanta, GA and Charlotte, NC. I’m staying near a small city which boasts over 183,000 people in its metro area.

I paid $50 for a month on the 5 gigabyte plan. I knew I’d have to be careful with the bandwidth – no uploading and downloading of big files, for example. This is a problem, as building websites requires lots of uploading and downloading.

My husband used it only once, for a quick email check and to catch up on Facebook.

I’ve had the device for five days now, and I have about 2.5 Gb out of the five left. How on Earth can anyone manage with a plan like this, unless the only thing they’re doing is checking email? Seriously?

I can buy a more expensive plan that gives me more data, for about $10 per additional gigabyte. Then there’s the hassle factor.

With Claro, I can do nothing with the device or the account for a full year and I still have the account.

With AT&T, if I don’t put money into the account regularly (they have a complicated formula, based on the amount of your refill), I’ll lose the account. This is a problem if I plan to visit the US only once a year.

If I don’t keep up with the refills and want to use the device eventually, I’ll need to purchase a new SIM card and set up a new account.

(T-Mobile does the same thing with my phone number. A while back they shortened the time frame for refilling the account, down to 90 days. I didn’t know about it and ended up losing the US mobile number I’d had for over 10 years.)

Neither Panama nor the US has a perfect system with total coverage. On the whole, though, using a mobile hotspot in Panama is more convenient and less expensive than using one in the US. At least there, I can use it to get serious work done.

by Susanna Perkins.

Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks

Read Susanna's other Expat Focus articles here or click the button below to view her own blog…

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