Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go – Pay as You Go 3G for travel or backup Internet access

Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go is a pay as you go 3G service that is ideal for travel or for use as a backup Internet connection

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These days having good reliable Internet connectivity is absolutely critical for small business. I am fortunate to have excellent service from River Canyon Wireless (RCW) that generally handles all my business and home Internet requirements, including VoIP phones and video conferencing, with ease. There are however times when even the RCW redundant back hauls are still not enough to guarantee service. To cover these occasional outages and make sure that my business keeps working I have a secondary means of connecting to the Internet that is completely independent of my primary service provider.

If you’re like me, the thought of paying extra for Internet access that you only use during an outage doesn’t seem too attractive until you get blown out of a video conference with an important client or can’t complete a credit card transaction on a big-ticket item. I’m pretty frugal so I didn’t install a second wired Internet service line to my home just for backup. Instead, I opted for a relatively inexpensive pay as you go 3G service that also covers my travel needs.

After some searching, I concluded that the Broadband2Go service from Virgin Mobile was the right choice for me. At the time I signed up (late last year) they offered several plans that ranged from $10 per month with 100 MB of download to a $40 month option with unlimited download. Newer plans are slightly different but still very competitive in terms of price. In my case, I am grandfathered into the $40 per month unlimited plan even though the new plan is $50 per month with a 5 GB data cap.

To connect to the service you need to buy a 3G modem and register it with Virgin Mobile. There are three modem options each of which come with a one month 500 MB plan:

  • MiFi 2200 – A 3G modem with built-in WiFi so you can share the 3G connection with 5 other devices in what is known as a WiFi hotspot. It also has a USB port so you can use it as a tethered modem with a PC.
  • Ovation MC760 – A thumb sized USB 3G modem that you can use with any PC.
  • PEEL 3200 – This is a new option. It’s basically a compact docking station that gives your iPod touch a 3G connection.

I opted for the Ovation MC760, shown below, since it was cheaper and smaller than the MiFi 2200.

Ovation MC760 USB 3G Modem
Ovation MC760 USB 3G Modem

If you plan to use Broadband2Go as your only Internet connection and you have only a few devices that all connect via WiFi then you may want to opt for MiFi 2200. Otherwise, the MC760 is the better bet since it is easy to share the 3G connection with your entire office provided you buy the correct router. I’ll discuss routers suitable for sharing 3G/4G connections in a future post. The PEEL 3200 is not really an option for business users since it is only for iPad Touch devices.

To configure the modem and setup an account you must have access to a PC running Microsoft Windows XP or later. The process is straightforward since the necessary drivers and software are included on flash media built into the modem. Simply plug it in and run the setup. Once configured the modem works perfectly from within Ubuntu Linux since the drivers are pre-installed. All you have to do is enable “Mobile Broadband” from network manger and configure a connection with with a Virgin Mobile / Helio connection. If you want to use the modem on several different Windows machines you will have to install drivers on each machine.

After using the Broadband2Go service for a year I can say that I’ve been quite happy. Connection speeds aren’t nearly as good as my primary service but it has been reliable and kept costs under control.

A SpeedTest.net test during business hours only gives 1.36 Mbps down and 580 kbps up from my office site which is not in the strongest signal area.

VirginMobile Broadband2Go SpeedTest
VirginMobile Broadband2Go SpeedTest

A Speakeasy test to a server in LA at about the same time gave 1.79 Mbps down and 440 kbps up as seen here:

VirginMobile Broadband2Go SpeakeasyTest
VirginMobile Broadband2Go SpeakeasyTest

I wouldn’t want to rely on the Broadband2Go service as my only Internet service but it’s certainly adequate as a backup or as an inexpensive pay as you go mobile Internet service.

Before closing, I’ll remind you to carefully check the service maps provided by Virgin Mobile before buying the modem and signing up for service. When I tried to purchase a modem the web site requested my zip code to confirm that I was in a service area. Their algorithm apparently chose a point near the geographic center of the zip code area and computes service levels. For my zip code that meant computing service at a point some 18 miles away from my home that was in a deep and remote Utah canyon with no service so the website tried to block my purchase. At first I was discouraged, but after I confirmed that my home was in a service area I proceeded to accept the terms (for purchasers whose zip codes are not within one of their service areas) and buy the modem.

Update November 11, 2011

I added this post:

How to Improve the Speed and Reliability of Your Internet Connection

that discusses the use of Broadband2Go with a 3G router that has load balancing and failover / failback features.

Update February 20, 2012

If you’re using Ubuntu 10.04 LTS you’ll want to install the package usb-modeswitch and it’s associated data package using Synaptic.

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