09 June, 2015

To Connect, or Not To Connect; Aye, There's the Rub

We started off with our Internet (or as I like to call it, 'Intertubes') adventures here in Belize with Belize Telemedia, Ltd., (BTL). That was when we lived over in Ranchito just off the Northern Highway in a rental house. We went to the extra expense of having a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) put in.

We could do that because there was a regular phone line already installed in the house. Which meant that there was probably a slightly larger 'pipe' somewhere close by.

Sure, it cost us some extra money, but we wanted the speed and bandwidth DSL offered. We lived there for six months. When we moved out, the owners, a nice, elderly Dutch couple, promptly had BTL take out the DSL line. A regular dial-up connection was perfectly fine for them.

During this time period, we were in the process of building our mansion on property we had purchased on day three of our initial 30-day excursion to Corozal in April of 2007  (You can see that we didn't follow the rules for new arrivees).

As I said, after our six months, our lease was up, as they were returning from Holland. We had to find new digs. Our mansion, a Mennonite house was delayed by four months because of  Hurricane Dean. The road from the builder's property in Shipyard, had been rendered impassable for that whole period. In those days, Mennonite builders, the ones we knew of, only built complete houses and moved them by trailer to their intended locations. Rough roads were not conducive to moving houses.

After the Ranchito house, we moved into a duplex, on Gringo Lane (Bay Shore Drive, although no one at that time, called it that). We got to stay there for a month, rent free, because we had let the owner, Canadian Bob, stay with us for a month at the Ranchito place.

It worked out well for us. I'm not sure exactly what connection we had at the duplex. I'm guessing it was standard dialup. Hey, beggars can't be choosers.

You have to keep in mind that, in those days, there were very few Intertubes connectivity options available to us. Dial-up, DSL, and satellite from NetKing out of Belize City were about all the choices.

After our month at Bob's duplex, we lucked out and got to housesit for Jim and Melanie at their huge house, also on Gringo Lane. At that time, it had a thatch roof, which is a story unto itself. Jim also had a DSL connection. We lived there for about two or three months, give or take.

Somewhere during that time, an outfit called Stellar Links got going. Several folks we had talked to had all sorts of stories about poor connectivity and poor service. Probably because the company was going through growing pains and a steep learning curve.

There was also cable TV. At that time, there was only one cable company in town. I think it was Centaur, but I think they had a different name then. They had just recently begun offering Intertubes capability to their customers. Their reported service ability, was also less than could be desired, probably for some of the same reasons.

About the time we moved to our newly delivered and set up house on Ferry Road, we were looking to get Intertubes service. Not the easiest thing to arrange.

For starters, DSL wasn't available to us, as there was only one phone line running down our road. A single line, with a twisted pair for duplex phone service, ran out to Mr. Quito's house, a little further down the road from our place. Mr. Quinto was the recently retired Belize Ambassador to Taiwan.

We called BTL to see about getting our own phone line and with it, we hoped, a DSL line for the computer. Guess again. We were told, in no uncertain terms that that line had been put in for the Ambassador, and had been paid for by the Government of Belize. And, according to them, it wasn't in the game plan to install another line for just one customer.

Did I forget to mention that we had been pioneers of a sort. Our house was the only one from Dr. Glenda's house to ours, and from ours, Mr. Quinto's was next. Then came Mr. Kelly, and several
other Belizean families living in the bush with no current, town water, telephone, or cable.

From those places, right at the sharp turns in the road by Mr. Quinto's, there was nothing to the ferry. That's right. There were no other houses. Oh, sure, there might have been another bush house or two further along, but the same lack of services of any sort applied to them as well.

Back to the story. Not only was a phone line not available to us, but there was no cable run out our way either. We only had current, because we paid for a transformer to be installed. That in its self took three or four months. We ended up getting connected about the time our house got set up - just for info, that last bit.

We did have a cell phone with Digicell. Smart was barely getting started at that time. Of course MiFi didn't exist at that time. Satellite seemed to be the only course open to us. So, we contacted Mike King with Net King to get Internet connectivity.

That worked fine for a while till Net King got caught essentially bootlegging connections, something about several accounts being showhorned into one account with the actual provider, a Canadian company, called Hughes. They closed all the modems, bringing that connectivity to a halt. We found out there was a grace period where we could transfer our account to Hughes and deal directly with them. We did that and wrestled with that nutroll for a while.

TV was another story. The only over-air broadcasts available to us were from Chetumal, Mexico. Since our Español was limited to being pretty much what you call non-existant, we didn't think that was a very good option.

We did find a company over in Spanish Lookout, Computer Ranch, owned and run by a couple of progressive Mennonite brothers, Abe and Harry, who over time, managed to set us up with a dish and modem from Star Choice (later Shaw) from Canada. We're still using Shaw, dealing directly with them as Abe and Harry got out of the satellite business because of the headaches it involved.

HughesNet was not the end all in itself either. It wasn't particularly fast, and was unreliable when you needed to have that reliability, like when clouds came in from a hurricane. Plus, you're dealing long distance with the provider. Shaw is the same way, but, they're almost easy to deal with, although
satellite TV is similarly affected by clouds.

So, we were looking for an alternative for our Intertubes connectivity. Along came Smart with MiFi. We knew a couple of folks who jumped to it early-on, and adopted the MiFi way of life. They seemed to like it, so we too decided to make the leap.

At first, Smart and MiFi were the answer to all our problems. It was relatively fast, it worked even in a driving rainstorm, it was relatively cheap, and you weren't dependent on any phone lines. What's not to like?

What's not to like is the fact that Smart has continued to oversell the MiFi experience, without commensurant upgrades to their equipment to handle the increase of traffic that  more customers than the system was designed for, brings.

We now frequently, in fact mostly, find ourselves with slow connections and often unable to even get connected. So, we're almost back to dealing with a dialup-like connection with similar capabilities.

My frustration got the better of me this morning. So, in one of the periods where I was able to get connected, I looked up Stellar Links to see what was available.

Everything on their website was looking pretty good, prices, packages, services - that is, till I clicked on a page that had last been updated in 2014. Whoa, hit the brakes.

Being aware of some of the issues others had dealt with using Stellar Links, that along with the outdated web page, told me volumes about what I could expect if we went with Stellar Links. It's unfortunate that some service companies just don't seem to get it, about what is involved in customer service.

Here's an example with Centaur Cable. Since we built here on Ferry Road, there's got to be at least twenty other households newly built along the Ferry Road, and probably more.

You'd think a company would be constantly beating the bush to get new customers. Ahh, maybe not. A few years ago, I called Centaur, who actually sent a young man out to meet me. He counted the number of telephone poles from our house to the nearest node where connection could be made to their service. This was near the intersection by Dr. Glenda's house. Not too far away. He agreed, and said that should be no problem. That was the last I heard from the company.

A year or two ago, Centaur ran a new cable right by our house, on south to where a new development was supposed to be going in. Apparently, the development turned out to be more smoke and mirrors, something very familiar to those who live here.

Anyway, the development apparently failed, and Centaur gave up that project themselves. They ran the cable, however long it might be, but then never followed up with any of the existing potential customers along where that cable had been run, and they never actually connected the cable to their network. The cable is still there, running right past our gate.

We've been told that we can contact the Centaur customer service guy over in Orange Walk who might do something. Apparently he cares. Contacting the local Corozal folks generates a big Hmmph of non-interest on their part time after time from several people who have contacted the Corozal office.

I'm not convinced that contacting someone in Orange Walk is going to solve the lack of interest or customer care evident in the local Corozal Centaur office. He may be able to get something started, but what about problems afterward? It's not worth calling the local Centaur office because they don't care?

It seems to be that they might not be the only ones in the company who don't care. I have better things to do with my money than to ask for more frustration and aggravation, even if we do continue to put up with overzealous sales of MiFi. At least, that shows Smart is interested in going after new business.

There's always the hope that equipment to support the increased customer base will eventually catch up. Somebody cares about business at Smart. Which is more than I can say about Centaur.

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