Belize Wifi Report: One Giant Monopoly - 01/30/12 03:44 PM
General Availability: Medium to High
Quality of Bandwidth: Usually very bad. Few places pay for high speed. Unless you can get a hardline, count on painfully slow connections.
Frequency of internet in hotels: Medium. The more touristy the more likely to have internet. But if you need it, check in advance.
Frequency of internet in campgrounds: Surprisingly high. Most campgrounds were part of a hotel or wildlife sanctuary that also had restaurants with wifi. Every campground we stayed at had internet, but we planned it that way.
Average cost to connect: Free at hotels and campgrounds. $5-$15 BZ ($2.50-$7.50 USD) per hour otherwise. The cayes tend to be higher ($15bz per hour $7.50USD)
Disclaimer: We spent 10 short days in Belize. This report only covers the few areas we visited, Corozal, Sarteneja, San Pedro, Caye Caulker and San Ignacio. We did NOT spend any time in Belize city, the southern cayes, Orange Walk, Belmopan or the Toledo or Stann Creek states.
The wifi story in Belize starts with one very important company, BTL. Belize Telemedia Limited owns everything. The phone lines, internet, the cell phone networks, VOIP connections. You name it, they own it. In 2009 the company was nationalized, itís now about 70% owned by the Belize government, for better or worse. This giant company is doing pretty much everything possible to make non-BTL communications impossible.
The BTL problem
BTL's monopoly causes some rather annoying problems for travelers.
- Skype is blocked. Along with a few other middle eastern countries, Belize has managed to block the use of skype. BTL has their own (more expensive) VOIP service. There are workarounds that allow you to use skype, most involve setting up a private VPN connection.
- Kindles wonít connect. For those of you with a 3G kindle, it wonít do you any good in Belize. That wonít be a surprise if you you've checked out the coverage map. Apparently BTL doesnít have any interest in giving Amazon a piece of their pie. The exceptions to this are areas near the Guatemala and Mexico borders, like San Ignacio, where you can connect to those country's wireless networks.
- Internet is expensive. All internet access here is expensive. So is setting up a cell phone and calling internationally. Compared to Guatemala and Mexico, costs here are slightly ridiculous. The Belize government also taxes high-speed internet somewhere between 19-24%. Itís not surprising that many cheaper hotels donít bother to install it.
Internet in accommodations
With a little bit of extra effort you can find any level of accommodation with wifi. Every place we camped had wifi. All hostels seem to have it. Hotels are hit or miss. Cheap hotels donít seem to bother. The more expensive variety always have it, but sometimes charge extra.
Bandwidth is usually terrible. Most places we stayed, the connection speed was barely dial-up quality. BTL charges by the speed, so it makes sense that most places donít bother to pay the extra cost. We did manage to hook up via Ethernet cable at one place and were shocked at the super speedy quality. And we did find one or two places had decent speeds, but I wouldnít count on it.
Internet in cafes
We were surprised at the cost of internet in cafes, especially in the cayes, at least $5 USD per hour and sometimes more. Be aware that many coffee shops and restaurants on the islands have free internet, but they donít advertise it. We walked around San Pedro for an hour looking for a place to have lunch and check emails. Eventually we gave up and went into a random pizza place, it turned out they had free wifi. Lesson learned, just ask.
Internet via cell phone networks
There are two cell phone networks in Belize (I know I said BTL owns everything, but there is one exception). We did not invest in a USB dongle or setting up our smartphone here. We weren't going to be here long enough, the rates were too high and wifi was frequent enough.
Digicell (owned by BTL): Donít be too shocked by their terrible webpage, I swear it is a legitimate company. They have the best coverage and the highest rates. If you want decent information, visit a BTL office. There is one in every major town, although they are always closed on weekends.
Smart:The phone company Smart, offers better rates, but is only CDMA compatible. Our GSM phone wouldn't work on their network. If you have a Verizon phone from the US, they can reprogram it to work with the Smart network for a fee. Reportedly BTL does not let Smart use any of their infrastructure, so the quality and coverage of service is limited.
We did investigate purchasing a 3G USB dongle through Smart, they quoted us $185 bz ($92.50 USD) for the dongle, excluding a data package. That was far enough out of our price range that we didnít bother to ask for the data rates.
The bottom line
If you need quality internet all the time, be prepared for inconvenience and extra expense.