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Virgin Mobile Offers MiFi Mobile Hotspot without Contract

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iPad and iPhone owners now have another alternative for mobile broadband. Virgin Mobile has added the MiFi, a portable cellular router that acts as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, to its pay-as-you-need-it broadband service. Virgin charges $149.99 for the device without a contract. You can purchase mobile broadband in increments as needed.

Virgin Mobile offers four prepaid data plans: $10 for 100 MB consumed within 10 days, while 30-day usage plans cost $20 for 300 MB, $40 for 1 GB, and $60 for 5 GB. There are no overage fees; you simply add another time-limited plan, just as AT&T does with 3G iPad service offerings. Unused data expires at the end of the period. Virgin Mobile is a subsidiary of Sprint Nextel, operated as a separate entity, and uses Sprint's network.

The MiFi has become a popular device for frequent travelers who need ubiquitous access to the Internet from multiple devices. A mobile broadband USB modem might plug into a laptop, but then the laptop has to be turned on and sharing set up to enable connections from other devices. The MiFi simplifies that by acting as a cellular data gateway for up to five Wi-Fi devices.

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The MiFi supports robust WPA2 Personal Wi-Fi encryption, making it a better choice than a Mac laptop. Apple has bizarrely lagged in allowing its software base station option (System Preferences > Sharing > Internet Sharing) to support only the outdated and useless WEP encryption method.

Previously, only Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel offered the MiFi for their EVDO networks. Verizon charges $269.99 without a contract and $49.99 (when purchased online) with a two-year contract. Sprint charges $299.99 without a contract, and nothing at all with a two-year contract. (Novatel Wireless, the firm behind the MiFi, also makes an HSPA version that would work on AT&T's network, but it's unclear if it would support T-Mobile's unique 3G bandwidth setup.)

Both Verizon and Sprint charge $59.99 for a 5 GB combined upstream and downstream monthly cellular data plan, and $0.05 per MB for data above that ($50 per GB), which is egregious given that the data doesn't magically cost several times as much when you cross that threshold. (The overage fees are a combination of profit center and discouragement to reduce network usage.)

Verizon also offers prepaid, contract-free usage: $15 for 100 MB used within 1 day, $30 for 300 MB used within 7 days, and $50 for 1 GB used within 30 days. Those plans are paltry and expensive compared to Virgin Mobile's, especially since you'd pay nearly twice as much for the MiFi up front.

Compare these MiFi offerings to AT&T's tethered smartphone option: the $25 DataPro plan is required, which includes 2 GB of usage within a 30-day period, as is a $20 "because we can" tethering fee from AT&T. Each additional 1 GB used in that same period is billed at $10, making a 5 GB plan cost $75 on a smartphone. Further, tethering limits use to a laptop, although you can share the connection as with a 3G modem. (iOS 4 is required in the United States; carriers in other countries have offered tethering with entirely different terms since iPhone OS 3 was released.)

The 3G iPad can't act as a host to a tethered iPhone, and its own data plans are quite expensive when you top a few gigabytes. AT&T charges $25 for each 2 GB increment used within 30 days. Consume over 4 GB within 30 days, and you're paying $75 (three times 2 GB at $25 each) for the privilege.

That's the level at which Virgin Mobile's deal for the MiFi looks attractive. One device, quite portable and battery powered, which could feed a Wi-Fi-only iPad ($130 cheaper than the 3G model), an iPhone (which otherwise would be consuming AT&T's mobile broadband), and a laptop - if you happen to travel with all three.

The MiFi also breaks down limits that Apple imposes on 3G networks. You can use FaceTime over 3G by using a MiFi, because the iPhone 4 only sees a Wi-Fi network. You can also download apps and media larger than 20 MB, although you'd have to balance that with bandwidth costs.

It gets better if you travel with colleagues or family, where you might have multiple iPhones and iPads that could use the same MiFi for Internet service. If you were planning on turning on a DataPro plan and tethering for a month with AT&T when you travel, the MiFi from Virgin Mobile may be a more economical and versatile option.

 

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Comments about Virgin Mobile Offers MiFi Mobile Hotspot without Contract

I feel totally stupid, but I can't figure out how much bandwidth I consume. For example, if I am streaming a show to myself from a Slingbox, can you tell me how much an hour would use?
Glenn Fleishman  2010-06-29 10:21
That's not stupid at all. If you're using a Mac to test that, you could install third-party software that counts bytes by location. A simple one is SurplusMeter. www.skoobysoft.com/utilities/utilities.html#surplusmeter

On an iPhone, it's trickier, because it doesn't track Wi-Fi usage. Some routers can help with that.

I was able to track the usage on a Netflix app over 3G by running it for an hour and looking at data used at the beginning and end in the iOS counter (Settings > General > Usage).
Ty Miles  2010-07-01 05:35
I have this and it's pretty good. it's easy to set up. The price is not bad (Pricey for the device at $150 but for the data it's on you)

I love the fact that it works just like a WiFi device so you can log into it and see all the data and settings you would see on your Wireless Router. Also it has the feature to set it up as temp hotspot for friends. You can turn on the temp hot spot feature and it will have no password till you turn it off. That way you don't have to give your friend or other user your real password and the users don't have to enter a password when they connect.

Pretty slick device.
Ron Risley  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2010-07-03 15:57
How did you get it? I tried ordering from their web site. I've exchanged email with customer service. At their suggestion, I even went to a Sprint store. No one seems to want to actually sell the thing! I wrote up my Kafkaesque experience at looseassociations.com/VirginMobile -- my need is only for emergency back-up so the contract options or Verizon's $500 plus $50 every month you use it is too pricey.
Travis Butler  2010-07-03 18:16
I saw them at Best Buy a couple of days ago; the store I went to had several in stock, but behind the counter in the cellular section. I had to ask the clerk to check and take one out for me to look at.
Yes, there are overage fees, regardless of the semantics. If you use up your 5GB after two weeks and purchase another 5GB block, then in effect your monthly bill will have been at least $90. Also, good luck trying to use this on multiple devices with multiple users without going broke. I still think it's better to get the cheapest iPhone/iPad data plan and only use the 3G for email and other bandwidth-light services.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-07-01 21:25
Overage fees: No, there's a distinct difference between prepaid and postpaid. You have to choose to buy more service. With postpaid, you're billed the bit you go over.

5 GB block: Each block has a 30-day time frame on it, so it's not like you have to use the 2nd hunk within two weeks.

iPhone/iPad plan: The whole point of the Virgin MiFi plan (and this article) is that this is an alternative for heavy users with multiple devices that's relatively cheaper than the AT&T alternatives due to limitations of tethering, the laptop requirement for sharing, etc.
P T Withington  2010-07-12 14:00
Got one. Works as advertised. Biggest drawback: Virgin service does _not_ include Sprint's roaming agreements. Hence I was fooled into thinking the Virgin unit would work in my favorite vacation spot (because a friend's Sprint one does). Alas, it does not. Who knows if that will change, but it is a pretty big drawback right now... Look carefully at Virgin's "coverage" map before you buy.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-07-12 15:12
Fascinating to know. Sprint covers a good hunk of the US, and relies on Verizon Wireless for some, but it's obviously going to bite different people in different places.

Sprint on its own devices restricts you to no more than 300 MB per month (on a 5 GB plan) outside its home network.
Brian S.  2010-07-12 22:30
"Apple has bizarrely lagged in allowing its software base station option (System Preferences > Sharing > Internet Sharing) to support only the outdated and useless WEP encryption method."

Interestingly, the wireless network itself ( visible via the Airport Utility ) does provide WPA/WPA2
Glenn Fleishman  2010-07-12 22:53
I'm confused what you mean here. Which wireless network? I'm talking about Mac OS X's ability to generate a base station in the OS.
Brian S.  2010-07-13 07:03
I'm referring to the WiFI from my Apple Airport Extreme ( older model ) router. The Airport Utility app ( in Applications/Utilities ) shows WPA/WP2 for my connection. This is different from Internet sharing. My point( FWIW ) is Apple makes the option available on the my old Airport Extreme router but not their latest Internet sharing in OS X 10.6.4
Glenn Fleishman  2010-07-13 07:32
That's not in dispute. In the article, I'm discussing using a laptop running Mac OS X to share the connection by creating a software base station. There's no mention of an Apple hardware base station.
John Cooper  2010-07-13 08:37
At what speed is the data delivered?

I live in a rural area, where the only always-on Internet solution so far has been long-range wireless via a huge antenna on top of the house. I pay over $110 a month for no more than 6GB monthly at a top download speed of 512 Kbps. So naturally, I'm always looking for better solutions.
xtopherm  2010-07-13 20:45
I need to insert a counterpoint here along the lines of a practical consideration: I have a MiFi for my laptop when I am out and about and the iPod Touches and laptops of the family, so when the iPad came out, I figured I'd go wifi and in the rare cases when I needed connectivity, I would stick the MiFi in my pocket. Turned out to be a total hassle - the iPad is so convenient with its instant on that you find yourself using it all the time and having to boot up the MiFi then wait forever for a connection etc. totally crushed the quick utility of the iPad. So I bit the bullet and got an iPad 3G and have never looked back. Now both the laptop and the MiFi are getting WAAAAAY less use. I dropped the Verizon plan down and am keeping it for the moment, but people need to understand what a hassle a MiFi is with the casual computing of the iPad. This is especially true when you consider the Mifi's 3.5hrs of battery life compared to the iPad's 10.