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Virgin Mobile Offers Unlimited Cellular Data Plan

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The options for getting mobile broadband more cheaply for your laptop, iPhone, and 3G iPad keep multiplying as carriers want to take advantage of a growing market. Virgin Mobile joins the fray with a $40-per-month, 30-day service plan with unlimited usage that's now available.

Just two months ago, Virgin Mobile - a division of Sprint Nextel - began offering the MiFi cellular router without a contract for $150. Service plans started at $10, and worked with either the MiFi or a USB modem compatible with Mac OS X and Windows. (See "Virgin Mobile Offers MiFi Mobile Hotspot without Contract," 28 June 2010.)

But the plans topped out at the same rate charged by carriers for laptop plans: $60 for up to 5 GB used in a 30-day cycle, and there was no automatic renewal or billing. In my article at the time, I explained how the flexibility of Virgin's offering could be the right combination for someone travelling with one or more iOS devices and a laptop, rather than using AT&T's iPhone iOS 4 tethering ($45 per month including 2 GB of usage), or a MiFi from Sprint or Verizon, which requires a two-year contract.

This new $40-per-month deal is extraordinary, and Virgin Mobile lists no restrictions on its offer page. This seems to be a terrific alternative to iPhone tethering or 3G iPad plans.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi connects to Sprint Nextel's 3G network, which operates more slowly than AT&T's top rates in principle, but isn't that far off in practice. AT&T has plans to double its raw 3G rates by year's end. (Sprint has a far faster 4G network, run by its Clearwire division, that reaches about 50 million people.)

AT&T requires that you have its 2 GB DataPro plan ($25 per month) to use tethering ($20 per month). The DataPro plan costs $10 per 1 GB used above 2 GB in a 30-day billing cycle. The cheaper DataPlus plan, at $15 per month for 200 MB of data, costs $30 less than the DataPro with tethering option. (AT&T does let you switch your service plan level and turn tethering on and off at will, instead of requiring a new contract or other limits.)

Beyond the limited service, iPhone tethering is also irritating in comparison to using the MiFi, requiring the right combination of elements to make it work. If you want to use more than one device, you have to employ a wonky workaround (Internet Sharing in Mac OS X set to share the tethered connection). The MiFi can share its connection with up to five Wi-Fi devices at once.

Sprint's 3G network currently has about the same coverage as AT&T, reaching roughly 80 percent of the U.S. population. If you're out of Sprint's area, the company roams you onto Verizon's network, but limits you to no more than 300 MB of Verizon service in a billing period - something that's nearly impossible to know in advance.

Virgin Mobile doesn't note this limitation, and says it uses only the Sprint 3G network, which may mean you could be without coverage in Verizon-only territory.

But Sprint has coverage in all major and medium-sized cities, as well as at airports. The tens of millions of people living in smaller towns and exurbs that are served by Verizon with 3G but not Sprint are the ones who would encounter this particular dearth.

 

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Comments about Virgin Mobile Offers Unlimited Cellular Data Plan

Scott Rose  2010-08-23 15:15
This is incredibly awesome. Thank you so much for posting this information.

I'm canceling my Sprint wireless modem, which I pay $51 per month for -- but I rarely use it -- and getting this instead.

I've been paying monthly for Sprint's wireless modem for 3 years (2 years of it under contract), and I've only used it during 4 or 5 months in that time period.

Sprint offers absolutely no month-to-month plan, so I've been forced into paying $51 per month every single month, even though my wireless modem sits there idly most of the time.

I just don't travel that much to make it worth it. Even if I started traveling 6 months out of the year and used this Virgin Mobile device during those 6 months, I would still be saving $300 per year by canceling my Sprint contract.

Goodbye, Sprint. Hello, Virgin Mobile!
John Halbig  2010-08-23 16:04
I think you've nailed it -- when I first heard that ATT was daring to charge 20 bucks extra to use the bandwidth you've already paid for, with NO value added advantages (would it have killed them to add a couple of gigabytes to the monthly cap, which already does not feature rollover??), I knew it was only a matter of time. Usage limits are regressive.

Just wait until people realize that this kind of WiFi means you can use skype or vonage with any WiFi enabled device -- wireless will then be the "dumb pipe" that the cell phone companies have feared all along, and the nickel and dime-ing will no longer be justifiable. 20 cents a message for SMS?! Charged to the sender AND receiver??
Frank Petrie  2010-08-30 15:42
I have been aching to tell Comcast to shove it during my upcoming move. Thanks for the incentive.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-08-30 16:05
I'll be very very curious whether Virgin Mobile will impose any limits, even though it's called unlimited, and whether you can purchase consecutive 30-day usage. It's a great experiment.

I highly recommend Clearwire, by the way, if you're in an area they serve. In testing in Seattle, I saw terrific downstream performance, and it's relatively cheap even compared to Virgin Mobile's deal.
Durbrow  2010-08-30 21:07
Would some tell me why we dissatisfied Comcast clients, abandon Comcast and use this service and device our our ONLY internet connection rather than as a supplement for traveling? Is it slower than regular ISP cable modems? Does anyone know how close we have to be to the MiFi?
P T Withington  2010-08-31 05:03
Verify you have coverage before you switch from Sprint to Virgin. A friend has the Sprint MiFi device and I thought I could use the Virgin plan for a better deal, but there is no roaming on the Virgin plan, so I am not able to use it in my favorite vacation spot, which has only Verizon coverage.