Why a data plan cannot replace Wi-Fi in the Caribbean

In a scenario where prepaid data is your only option for Internet connectivity, it can be still a challenge to get a service that fits your needs in the region.


Imagine yourself in the following scenario: you need good quality Internet access over relatively prolonged periods, but where you are temporarily located, somewhere in the Caribbean, neither Wi-Fi nor a fixed-line Internet connection is available. Luckily you have a tablet computer that can use a SIM, and so can purchase mobile/cellular data plans to provide the requisite connectivity.

However, since your needs are only short-term – for few weeks – prepaid plans are the only option… but it will cost you. Big time. Not only do you need to surf the Internet, you also need to make video conference calls, and will even use your tablet for leisure, since the TV channels on offer are limited. As a result, your data requirement is significant – at least 5 GB per week, but most likely closer to 10 GB, when video streaming in the evenings and on weekends is considered.

As shocked as that consumption might appear, in the typical United States household, the average consumption is around 190 GB per month, which for a family of four, amounts to about 47.5 GB per person. In most Caribbean countries household Internet access is unlimited (uncapped); hence, many of us have no idea how much data we consume in a month. Further, it ought to be appreciated that outsides of basic telephone calls, all Internet and video demands in the scenario being described are being delivered over the tablet. No other resources or mediums are being used.

If you were to be in that location for several months, or even a year, a postpaid data plan would be the best option, as a 12- to 24-month commitment is usually the norm. Further, a 20 GB to 50 GB per month plans would most likely be available, consistent with your anticipated data demand, and more attractively priced.

Unfortunately, the largest prepaid data plan offered is around 1 GB. More importantly, you cannot load up, say 5 GB in one top-up session, as the system is configured to require you to completely consume 1 GB at a time before topping up, failing which you will reset any outstanding balance you might have, essentially losing money. As a result, you can lose Internet access at any, and the most inopportune, time,  without prior warning, and would thus be scrambling to top up and to minimize the likely disruption.

For those of us who travel regularly within the Caribbean, the above scenario might seem improbable: but it is an experience myself and countless others have had. Having had this experience, it is quite perplexing that prepaid mobile/cellular data services in the region do not accommodate high volume use, but do so via its postpaid plans.

Typically, prepaid plans data plans are more expensive than their postpaid counterparts. Service providers are not losing money when they offer the former. Table 1 highlights a small selection of countries, based on information published on their websites, which would be a subset of the full range of services and plans they actually offer.

Table 1: Select prepaid and postpaid data plans and prices offered by z sample of Caribbean mobile/cellular providers as at July 2017 (Source: Providers’ websites)


The challenge, however, is that based on how the prepaid data plans are designed, it suggests that many Caribbean providers either do not anticipate, or are not prepared to facilitate or encourage, heavy mobile/cellular data use. Accordingly, consumers find ways and means to compensate. For example, although most mobile/cellular data plans are activated on smartphones,  consumers are mindful of overages, and so  eagerly to connect to Wi-Fi when available. Hence, one might find that typical data plan consumption across the region is under 2 GB per month.

Having said this, with the trend towards larger smartphones and phablets, there is not only an expectation, but also a growing demand by consumers, to do more on their handsets.  As a result, their Internet data requirements are increasing. However,  due to the price of data plans (in some Caribbean countries), consumers are still inclined to ensure that most of their connectivity is satisfied via Wi-Fi, resulting in the still limited development of mobile/cellular data plans and services in the region.


Image credit:  Pexels