Monday, June 5, 2023

Internet on the Road (Confessions of a Data Hog)

Theoretically, the Internet in Mexico should be fine. There is strong cellular coverage throughout the country, with 5G cellular in big cities. In fact, I almost bought a fancy 5G cellular modem for this trip, until I realized I was barking up the wrong tree. Cellular is fine and all, but the data plans available to tourists are limited and US roaming is a lie.

My AT&T phone's roaming plan began throttling me last week without notice, down to incredibly slow 3G speeds. In the past, it would email me I was about to hit my data limit, but not this time. It sent me to the cornfield without notice. Some people online deny this is happening, blaming the local Telcel network, but my buddy renewed his Mexican Telcel account and he’s getting 5G speeds right now off the same towers, although it's a very limited data plan. So why not just get a local Telcel chip?

My AT&T phone is locked since I’m still paying it off, so that’s not an option. I bought a Telcel SIM for a couple bucks to check out and we couldn’t use it. Next we tried it on my son’s phone. I’ve paid off his phone so it’s unlocked. The Telcel SIM worked. However, looking at his data usage stats, we realized he’s quite the data hog; we both are. He would burn through the largest Telcel pre paid account in a few days. 

I can barely do my work with 3G speeds. You also can’t do much social media (my marketing) or play games. If you live here, you have access to better and more data, but that’s not a travelers story. If you’re a tourist in Mexico, without access to residential data plans, you are going to be hampered unless you sip data. There is no data plan from any US carrier that will get you large data limits in Mexico and there's no way to re-up your home plan to give you more data.

What about Starlink?

Indeed, what about Starlink. I ended up buying a Starlink system before we left. The friend I'm traveling with already had one. I paid $750, plus $150/month for the last couple months. Then it stopped working. Mine stopped working on the road on the third day of this trip, as did my friends. Curious how they both stopped working at the same time. 

We had both hacked the cable so we could create ports on the outside of our RVs. This broke Starlink and I suspect, there's some sort of current test to detect this sort of hack and disable the system. It’s a new issue, since my friends Starlink had been modified like this for nine months. He happened to have an extra cable with him and that restored his Starlink. I was already in Mexico when we figured this out, so my new cable is coming from the US next month. We’re sharing his Starlink. So does Starlink solve our Internet problems?

Starlink is a bit of a mixed bag. Starlink relies on ground data centers across the world to handle data processing and they are not as seamless as they are in the US. The one in Mexico is not great, so we get regular data drops and latency problems. Starlink is pretty amazing for office work, including video conferencing, but it starts to show its limitations in the entertainment department. 

Videos tend to freeze up and online gaming is problematic. Playing my twice a month game of Divinity II with friends saw my connection drop about once every 20 minutes. My son does a ton of online gaming on the road, so this is a huge disappointment for him. Maybe this will improve when my own Starlink is back up. 

Starlink is also dependent on a clear sky, and without that requirement, it can not work at all, or simply limp along, perhaps dropping data every 20 minutes or so like with my Divinity game. It’s very sensitive to obstructions and considering how long Starlink takes to align itself, you can spend hours just futzing around with it to get it to somewhat work, unsure on precisely what the problem is. Starlink to me is amazing, but strikes me as an experimental technology that’s not consumer friendly when it begins having problems. There, I said it. Starlink isn’t ready for prime time.

It is what it is. That is the catch phrase of Mexico. When it comes to Internet, we do what we can, when we can do it. I’m writing this in my Notes app, because my 3G Internet is still trying to load my blog page. The deal was we need to be able to work on the road, and the deal with my son was he would get to keep gaming while traveling. Maybe we’ll get Internet dialed in by the end of the trip, or maybe we’ll just spend less time on our devices and enjoy our surroundings. 

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