∞ Hands on: Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go

Virgin Mobile has recently added Mac compatibility to their Broadband2Go device, available without a contract for $99. I decided to try the device out to see how it holds up on my new MacBook – a late 2009 2.26GHz model running Mac OS X 10.6.2.

I’m still waiting for AT&T Wireless to tell me how much tethering will cost for my iPhone or when I’ll be able to get it. And Wi-Fi is nice, but it’s not ubiquitous in my travels. That left me shopping around for mobile broadband service, which almost all the major carriers in the U.S. offer.

I’m not big on commitments

Because of the tethering question, because I’m cheap, and because I regularly forget to pay my bills, I didn’t want to get sucked into an biennial contract or a monthly charge, which limits my choices. Further limiting my choices is my use of a MacBook, which doesn’t have an ExpressCard slot or a PC Card socket, so I have to go with a USB interface. Virgin Mobile scores a home run by offering everything I’m mbb-228x300looking for in their Broadband2Go package.

Inside the box is a Novatel Wireless Ovation MC670 USB device. It’s an EV-DO Rev. A-compliant wireless broadband interface that works with Mac OS X 10.3 or later (and various flavors of Windows).

The device has a glossy black top silkscreened with the Virgin Mobile logo in silver outline; a round status LED is visible near the USB interface when there’s activity. On the underside is a microSD card slot, a flash media card format used by some cameras, cell phones and personal media players.

When the MC670 debuted in late 2008, it was billed as the smallest EVDO USB device available. It measures 2.24 x 0.98 x 0.47 inches and it weighs 0.67 ounces. The MC670 can easily fit in a breast pocket or pen pocket in a bookbag or briefcase. It’s big enough when it’s installed that I wouldn’t recommend leaving it in the USB slot if you’re getting ready to take your laptop somewhere, but it’s trivial to take with you.

Setup

Setting up the MC670 for activation and use is trivial. The first time you insert the MC670 into an available USB port you’ll see a Mac OS X-native installer application that puts Mac driver software and application software in the right place. Run it and restart, then launch the Broadband2Go software from your Applications folder. The application interface is complemented by a special menu item.

Click on the menu item and select “Program Modem,” and you will automatically connect to Virgin Mobile’s network and Web site. You can enter credit card info, register your device, pick a PIN number, and receive a Mobile Directory Number (MDN) and Mobile Station ID (MSID). Once the modem has been programmed, using it is as simple as plugging it in and clicking the Connect button in the software. If there’s a signal, the modem will hook right up. I ran the software using Mac OS X 10.6.2 without running into any sort of problems.

But before you can use the Broadband2Go device, you must also purchase bandwidth. Virgin Mobile allows you to use a credit card, PayPal or a prepaid “Top-Up” card sold at retail locations.

virginsoftwareThe Broadband2Go software tells you about signal strength, provides upload and download totals, and can give you configuration information about the device. And Virgin Mobile’s Web site tells you exactly how much bandwidth you’ve used and how much time you have left before your bandwidth expires.

Pay to play

As of this writing, Virgin Mobile offers four plans: $10 for 100MB of access that has to be used within 10 days; and $20, $40 or $60 for 250MB, 500MB or 1GB that needs to be used within 30 days. Virgin Mobile estimates that 100MB will last for about 5 hours of Web browsing, 25 minutes of streaming video or 10,000 e-mails.

Virgin Mobile isn’t the only vendor that offers a Mac-compatible pay-as-you-go broadband modem. Verizon’s pre-paid access service costs $15 for 75MB, $30 for 250MB and $50 for 500MB. Neither T-Mobile, Sprint nor AT&T Wireless offer pay-as-you-go data plans. It’s also worth noting that Verizon Wireless charges more for the same device – $169, versus $99 from Virgin Mobile.

The cost is high and the amount of bandwidth is stingy compared to monthly plans, but Virgin Mobile doesn’t ding you with an early termination fee if you decide to stop using the service, and it doesn’t charge you arbitrarily (though they do offer repeated monthly billing as an option if you want to make sure you always have bandwidth when you need it).

It’s this latter factor that’s the biggest win for me. Most of the time as I amble about in my usual work pattern, I’m within range of some Wi-Fi hot spot or another that I can use for free. But when I hit the road, I can’t base my itinerary around access to cafes or sandwich shops that have free Wi-Fi.

Instead, I’m often stuck on trains without any sort of connectivity (hello, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor), or in airports and hotels that provide Wi-Fi to travelers willing to pay extortionist fees. For that sort of occasional use, Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go is a perfect solution. And if I find I use up all the access I’ve paid for, it’s trivial to connect and top my account up with additional access.

Performance anxiety

EV-DO Rev. A performance is rated at up to 3.1 Mbps download and 1.8 Mbps upload, but Sprint’s network offers downlink data speeds average between 600 and 1400 Kbps, according to Virgin Mobile. That will, of course, depend entirely on where you’re connecting from.

My own experience, living in a relatively quiet area about an hour and a half south of Boston, was that I was usually relegated to 1RXTT speeds, one notch down from EV-DO in the mobile broadband speed hierarchy. When I did get connected with a strong EV-DO signal, my downlink transfer speeds were right in the range that Virgin Mobile specified. Uplink speeds are slower, of course. I wouldn’t use Broadband2Go to upload big audio or video files, but it’s perfectly serviceable for light file transfer, e-mail and Web surfing – exactly what Virgin Mobile advertises it for.

Virgin Mobile’s coverage map shows decent coverage in major urban areas and transportation corridors. There’s a lot of “white space” showing no coverage at all, but it’s mainly in rural spots and “flyover” locations where few enough people spend time that coverage isn’t practical. Regardless, make sure to check out Virgin Mobile’s coverage map to make sure you’re in an area – and will be using it in areas – serviced by the company. It’s also worth noting that Virgin Mobile offers a 30-day money back guarantee, so if you buy the device only to discover that coverage is impractical or that you just don’t like it, you have a month to get your money back.

Solid value without messy entanglements

I’m quite impressed with Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go service. It’s the right price – $99 for the gear, as little as $10 for access, and no monthly charge or long-term contract to worry about. If you’re a road warrior who needs wireless access where Wi-Fi isn’t available, you should definitely check Virgin Mobile’s service out to see if it’s right for you.



  • kevin

    hopefully someone comes out with a pay as you go MiFi because that is really the way to go. connection is via wireless so it’s automatically supported by macs (AND the iPod touch which is 90% of my usage).

    Sprint is $60 for 5 GB a month, so if you’re buying the 1GB Verizon connection every month, it’s better to go with a contract.

  • http://www.loopinsight.com Peter Cohen

    As I said in the article, Kevin, “The cost is high and the amount of bandwidth is stingy compared to monthly plans.” The big win for me is that there’s no early termination fee and no monthly charge, so I can use it when I want or not at all and not be penalized.

  • http://chibiproject.com/ Patrick Delahanty

    The $99 is a yearly fee? I thought that was a one-time fee for the USB dongle thingie. If I have to pay that again next year, suddenly getting this for my very infrequent needs is much less appealing.

  • http://www.loopinsight.com Peter Cohen

    No, of course not – the $99 is a one-time charge. Where’d you see that it’s an annual fee?

  • http://chibiproject.com/ Patrick Delahanty

    I think I had misread something.

    Anyway, picked one up last night. Will try it today after I get to Logan Airport. :)

  • http://www.loopinsight.com Peter Cohen

    Good luck, Patrick!

  • Wes

    I picked up one of these a month ago and i was prompted to install the software on my mac with snow leopard. Everything seemed fine and I was asked where i wanted the user guide saved. Afterwards I did the required restart but I have no signs of any virgin mobile software or the guide. Only sign i see is under network I see virgin modem listed as a connection device but it wont connect unsure of how to manually configure it. Modem works great on my xp netbook. Worst yet now when i plug in the broadband card it doesn’t mount or prompt to install the software again. How can i start over or get the software? Virgins site is no help.

    • http://www.loopinsight.com Peter Cohen

      I’m not quite sure how to reinstall the software, but the install went just fine for me – there’s a Broadband2Go folder in the Applications folder, which is where I access the modem.

      If you need support from Virgin Mobile, their Web site contact page link is at http://wuat.virginmobileusa.com/about/prepareEmailUs.do.

      • http://chibiproject.com/ Patrick Delahanty

        OH! Okay, I tried installing it at Logan Airport on Wednesday, but couldn’t connect. I tried wifi on a whim and discovered that Google was offering free wifi at Logan until January 15th, so I gave up trying to get the mobile access working. (Free is better!) I figured I’d call their support line later.

        …but I hadn’t realized it installed a folder under Applications! I had just been looking under Network Connections and it seemed like it was supposed to be a modem connection of some kind there.

        Now this makes sense! I’ll try that application the next time I want to connect via Virgin Mobile. (No point in trying it now and starting that 30 days clock for no reason.)

        Thanks, Peter! :D

        • http://www.loopinsight.com Peter Cohen

          No problem. :)

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/BigPapaWes Wes

    I found how to uninstall the virgin mobile drivers from the mac. After doing this and plugging the broadband card back it I am once again prompted with the mac install file and user setup guide from the device. I deleted the following files from Library\Extensions, file names are VirginMobile.kext and VirginMobileFilter.kext. Going to try a reinstall wish me luck!

  • C.J.

    When you go to bestbuy and purchase the broadband2go do you have to give your social security or any ID? I currently have service with verizon and i was asked so much info about myself it was insane! and i really dont want to go throgh that agan for another internet service especially when i just want to try this out. The second question i have, do u have to give credit card info wile setting up in the pc?

    • Peter Cohen

      Buying the device doesn’t require you to give out any personal info. You won’t be able to use the device without giving a credit card number or using a Virgin Mobile pay card, though you do have to give personal info to register the device.

  • C.J.

    Went to the store to get it this morning, when i got home the first thing i did was the setup. The installation was simple and fast, gave all the info and used a credit card instead of the pay card. When everything was ready I went to many sites including youtube, and played some games online just to compare it to my verizon card. Belive it or not, the broadband2go from virgin mobile is much faster than verizon’s, and for the online games it didnt show any difference, but it still plays them good without lag. Overall, im glad i purshased this little device works great and performs better than verizon. Peter thanks for the excellent product review and for all the help.

  • armando

    thanks guys for believe on virgin mobile this is a great idea pay as you go internet service, and if someone have any issue with this device you can call tech sprt. at 18778778443

  • JayRad

    I am having trouble with my setup guys. I installed it last night on my night shift at around midnight and followed all procedures in the user guide. I paid with credit card on the website (as their customer support was not available via phone) It is all installed and i was very excited to give it a shot on my BRAND new Asus G71GX with Windows 7. However when the Virgin MobiLink program booted up and showed the CONNECT button, I clicked on it and it went grey for a moment… and the Connection status would not change from READY to CONNECTED. I activated my broadband2go stick and everything already… and I even topped up my account an extra $20 just in case. Is this due to me activating and paying for the service during Closed hours of Virgin Mobile and credit card payment process times? Thanks guys!!

  • Dan

    I have the dongle..works fine on my netbook..BUT kids gave me an ipod Touch for Christmas..works great at wifi locations, but, can I download Virgin software to an 8 gig Touch and hook it up thru the Touch-USB cord? Have searched google but can't find the answer…just an interesting idea that I could use occasionally….thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/PDelahanty @PDelahanty

      No, it's not possible to use the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go from an iPod Touch.

      • Dan

        Darn…:( but thanks for the comeback!! Maybe Virgin should develop something…….:)

        • Gregoryjoseph82

          They did – the Mifi and Peel!

  • Guest

    http://www.cradlepoint.com/products/phs300-person

    Plug in the USB aircard and it'll create a 16person hotspot (very similar to MiFi). ~$150 at BestBuy, cheaper on eBay.

    "The PHS300 Personal WiFi Hotspot is a true plug ‘n’ play solution that creates a powerful 3G/4G WiFi network almost anywhere."

    Been using it with a Sprint aircard for ~1yr, just bought the Virgin Mobile Novatel MC760 to try soon. It's listed as one of the compatible aircards.

    God is Good!

  • Barbara

    Bought unit last November for my 2007 macbook and it worked great. My hard drive died last week and was replaced by Apple. Can no longer use the VMBB2G. Have spent a lot of quality time with VM tech support and Apple Genius Bar. VM says it's Apple's problem and Apple says it's VM's problem. VM says I have to delete the keychain login. Has anyone else mentioned this problem??? Thanks!

  • Andy

    Can Qualcomm's Gobi be setup to use Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go? If yes, in this case, how to get MDN and MSID?

  • Eve

    hey, I have a question about using the broadband2go, how do i make it as a hotspot wifi?

  • Peter

    No luck so far. I installed the device and software, bought $20 worth of data but all I get is an annoying window asking me to “Type your password to allow Broadband2go to make changes” in an endless loop (i.e. the window pops up, I enter my admin password, the window closes, opens again etc., without anything else happening. Any clues?

    • Andrew

      Did you find a solution? I am having the exact same problem.

  • Melissa

    Hello! Someone help me!!! I have a mac laptop and a mac desktop. Bought the Ovation MC760 and tried installing it on both computers and it was like I did not put anything on the USB port. Called Virgin and they said my new card was defective, return it and get a new one. Did that today and I’m having the same problem. Tried on my dad’s PC istalled perfectly. My OS is 10.5.8. Called Virgin again talked to three people so far and everyone is clueless. The last guy blamed me having the Verizon card system and I told him that that should not matter, that the mac should at least acknowledge that there is something connected to the USB port.

    • Peter

      Virgin’s software is crap. It never worked for me. However, I got the modem to work with these instructions, using the modem settings control panel, completely circumventing Virgin’s tool:

      http://www.novatelwireless.com/index.php?view=article&catid=42%3A…&id=167%3Amacosxleopard-novatelevdo&option=com_content&Itemid=182

      (you have to install and set up the modem though).

  • Melissa

    Thank you Peter, it looks a little intimidating but I’m going to give it a try.

  • http://3gstore.com edminister

    I have been using mobile broadband for about 3 years now, originally with Sprint and found that the software that comes with most of the mobile broadband cards out there are garbage and difficult if not impossible to install. The MC760 from Virgin and a lot of other cards are supported by Cradlepoint’s mobile broadband routers. These routers will bypass all of the problems you guys are seeing with installation etc. by making the MC760 into a mobile hotspot to connect to much like at a coffee shop. No messy software and unlimited mobile broadband all in one. 3gstore.com carries a variety of router options. Their price is slightly higher but their tech support is a godsend as the Cradlepoint routers have no documentation to speak of. Their support team provide lifetime support as well, they have saved me on multiple occasions.

  • Peter

    I just purchased the virgin mobile ovation mc760 for an xp pro sp2 computer. The setup was problematic.

    It seemed to work well at first (decent upload/download speeds) but then I realized ‘network connections’ was disabled (as in it no longer functions and gives you ‘not responding’ messages). Hence the modem worked but was not recognized by the computer as a modem in the device list or network connections.

    WARNING: THIS MEANS YOU HAVE NO FIREWALL IF YOU GET THE SAME KIND OF SETUP FAILURE. THE DEVICE WORKS, BUT IS NOT CONSIDERED A NETWORK CONNECTION! YOUR DESKTOP WILL BE UNPROTECTED!

    SECOND WARNING: during the installation my firewall driver was removed then put back by the installation software (you’d think they’d mention this). I noticed several ‘remote procedure calls’ in the log. Note my firewall alerted me of this change by VMs software only on reboot. I have no idea what that means.

    BOTTOM LINE: after several hours spent reading thread comments I believe the ovation mc760 is not compatible with the vast majority of computers.

    If you are still willing to check it out I suggest you purchase no more than a $10 top off card, because the VM credits are non refundable.

  • http://viettelonline.com/ VuLN

    Nice, that’s helpful for me!

  • Herkyrider

    I can’t seem to be able to log on and surf the web through AOL..I know..my wife is the last to use AOL, but it’s driving her crazy..so it’s driving me crazy…Gives an error message about needing work on the Firewall, but all seems fine there..Any ideas?