Hotspotting through the BVI with an iPhone 5

This is a bit of a techie post for anyone who wants to swap SIM’s and take a calculated risk with their beloved communication device while traveling outside the USA.

I had done a fair bit of research as to our internet needs for our BVI sail in April and had decided on a 3 GB data only from Digicel  (their MiFi plan) for $50. There were 8 of us on a 44′ Lagoon cat and and we wanted basic internet for all the obvious reasons. Here is how it all went down.


We arrived in Road Town on Easter Monday only to find that the Digicel store was closed. Our charter from Conch started the next day so on Tuesday morning I was at the store for their 9 am opening, a few others were already ahead of me. Had to patiently wait my turn (30 minutes) and I then explained to the lady what I wanted. “I had an unlocked At&T iPhone 5 and wanted a Digicel SIM with a data only plan so that I could use the phone as a hotspot”. Yes, she says and I select the 3 GB plan good for 30 days. If we use it all up before then I could renew the plan with another 3 GB but if I wanted to add less (a different plan) I would have to call them and cancel the old plan and select a new one, anyway that’s how I understood it to work.

She runs through the paperwork, replaces the AT&T SIM (which I religiously keep) with the new Digicel one and makes sure the service is working before handing the phone back to me. I ask about enabling the hotspot and she answers it’s outside her service area and refers me to their tech support guy nearby. I go over to him and he helps me to turn it on in the iPhone. As you know, enabling this service with AT&T is blocked unless you buy the 5 GB data plan from them for $50 pm. Back to Digicel, I test the service with another iPhone, go to settings, WiFi and see the 5 broadcast itself as “Rose’s iPhone”. I select it and enter the password (configurable on the 5 hotspot screen). Voila! It connects and I have internet through the hotspot.

The iPhone 5:

Initially I was frustrated until I worked out the following. Briefly, the iPhone is a PHONE and not really a ROUTER so there are some limitations.

Broadcasting the SSID (the WiFi network name of “Rose’s iPhone”) is only done for a fairly short period of time, about 3 minutes. To re-initiate it you have to wake up the hotspot screen on the iPhone 5 so that it will start broadcasting again and others will again see the available hotspot network. This does not cutoff any connected devices, it simply prevents new ones from seeing the network and connecting.

The iPhone 5 itself has a self (Apple) imposed limit of only 3 simultaneous hotspot connections. Again this has nothing to do with Digicel and is an APPLE imposed limitation.

How the system worked:

Throughput was about 1 MB up & down, take this with a lot of salt as I only tested it once and was not concerned about it as long as it worked. We had pretty good reception everywhere EXCEPT Anegada where it was torturerly slow, barely good enough for email.

You can check your available data balance very easily from the iPhone and I would also turn it off when not in use, eg at night and if we were sailing when no one was on it. Also, the iPhone runs warm as it is on when ON and rarely goes to sleep as a normal phone would do, therefore you need to keep it plugged into a USB power source. This is another point that it is a phone and not a router by design.

Other devices –  I told our crew that we had limited bandwidth (the 3 GB) and that they should not view too many video’s or movies. The other thing you need to realize is that other devices will generally see that they have a WiFi connection (as opposed to a cellular one) and think they have unlimited bandwidth available. In our case 8 days into our 10 day charter I forgot to turn off the hotspot iPhone for the night and was horrified to see we had used up 500 MB overnight! I can only surmise that some connected device had sucked it up. I did not bother to investigate further and simply told the crew they were on their own for the last few days as our 3 GB allotment was pretty much all used up.

Basically it suited our needs. I think the iPhone hotspot solution will work very well if two of you use the one data connection and can sensibly manage the iPad/Laptops that you connect through it. If you have a crew of 8 and less control over its usage a MiFi router will be better although you will still have to manage your allotted data bandwidth.