4G Cellular Data in St. Maarten/St. Martin and Eastern Caribbean Islands
Updated: November 2020
Cellular voice and data services that are suitable for cruising yachts are ubiquitous throughout the Caribbean islands as they are in the rest of the world. 4G LTE (and at times LTE-A) is widely deployed with download speeds of up to 20mbps, prepaid cards for voice and data are widely available and high-value data packages for yachts are available from several distributors. Costs are generally higher than densly-populated areas in North America and Europe, but in line with other smaller markets.
While cellular access in each island is easily obtainable, travelling between islands can be tricky – each island may be its own separate jurisdiction with different cellular plans that may or may not work in other islands. When travelling by boat you may also be within range of different countries/networks at the same time so extra diligence is required to ensure that you are connected to the best available network as it pertains to reception, data speeds and cost.
We have been installing, upgrading and servicing reliable, high-performance, long-range marine data communications systems for many years – cellular, satellite and Wi-Fi. We know what works well in our region and what should be avoided. We are happy to design and install a system to best fit your cruising plans, data requirements and budget. We also assist our customers with selecting the right data package and provide high-data solutions from several distributors.
Eastern Caribbean Cellular Networks
These are the main network serving our neighborhood and the rest of the Eastern Caribbean island chain. All offer local prepaid SIM cards that are widely available in each island and are a good choice for those looking for a simple, short-term solution for casual use. Most SIM cards are assigned a phone number and are good for both voice and data, or for data only – different bundles are available in each market.
UTS operates a seamless LTE network serving the Dutch Caribbean islands – St. Maarten, Saba, Statia, Curacao, Bonaire – as well as French St. Martin and St. Barth with 3G. A single SIM card and data bundle will work in any of their “Chippieland” territories. No online top-up. http://uts-ec.com/mobile/chippie-prepaid
Digicel operates several networks throughout the region under their brand and serves the most markets of any Caribbean carrier. Though not always advertised as such, we found that many data plans continue to work on different islands that are part of the same network (for example Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis and Anguilla). https://www.digicelgroup.com/
Of particular note is the Digicel FWI network that covers the French islands and and offers packages that also include data access in most other Digicel Territories and even Dutch St. Maarten (though at slower 3G speeds) at very attractive rates. This is probably the best value at the moment for yacht travelling the islands with data requirements of up to 100GB/month. Details at https://www.digicelgroup.com/mf/fr/bundles.html#Offresforfait
Previously known as LIME and before that as C&W, FLOW is the incumbent carrier in most of the English-speaking Caribbean. Their use of lower frequency bands with their LTE networks means signal can travel farther than networks utilizing higher frequency bands.
FLOW prepaid voice/data SIM cards are widely available in their territories and can be refilled online. However, data plans are typically island-specific so if you travel between islands you will need to get individual SIM cards and plans for each one. https://discoverflow.co/
Serves the French Islands – St. Martin (French Side), St. Barth, Guadeloupe, Martinique. https://boutiquemobile.caraibe.orange.fr/boutique/forfaits-sans-mobile/club
Most international carriers offer Caribbean voice and data roaming options. Most of these are expensive, limited or both. There are a few exceptions however. Examples:
- Many European carriers treat the French Caribbean as part of the European market, making roaming in French St. Martin and St. Barth attractive
- T-Mobile USA offers “unlimited” low-speed international data roaming to their customers
- Google FI is an excellent choice for travelers from the USA with international data roaming available at attractive per-MB rates
Yacht-specific Data Plans
Several distributors offer regional or global data plans with generous data allowances which are aimed at large yachts with high data consumption – 100GB and more per month, with rates dependent on monthly commitment but generally in the neighborhood of $10/GB. These come in one of two flavors:
- Network specific – in the Caribbean that would usually be on the Digicel or Flow networks. A single SIM card will work in all islands within the network.
- Roaming – a good package will cover all destinations including US territories (Puerto Rico and the USVI) and Dutch Caribbean islands in a single plan/SIM card.
The Caribbean island chain is comprised of many countries with a varied telecommunications infrastructure heritage. As such, 3G and 4G frequency bands used across the region comprise of both North-American and European standards.
Most modern LTE phones and many routers and “hotspot” devices will work adequately when used outdoors and will get a 3G or 4G connection most of the time. However, a dedicated multi-band router with an external wideband antenna will allow for the best possible performance and range, providing data access
Pepwave brand from Peplink has become the “go-to” solution for cellular connectivity on yachts, and for a good reason – their products are capable, reliable, and easy to operate and especially to switch between different carriers. The Pepwave Max BR1 LTE-A line is what we install and recommend for all but most data-intensive applications.
What about Shore Wi-Fi?
Shore Wi-Fi is still a valuable addition to your boat’s connectivity options. Not so much for use at anchor anymore, but rather for un-metered Internet access when in a marina or a boat yard. A good opportunity for housekeeping tasks that would be cost-prohibitive on cellular or satellite connections, like software updates, backups and large downloads.
We recommend acquiring a dual-band system (supporting 5GHz frequencies) as the older 2.4GHz spectrum tends to get very crowded and congested, which can severely impact your connection quality. As cable loss on the 5GHz is so high it is no longer practical too install an outdoor antenna with a coax run to an indoor radio, a single antenna/radio solution such as the Wave Wi-Fi Rogue Pro DB is now preferable.