Review: Virgin Mobile Broadband To Go

Virgin Mobile Brodband CardIn my last post, I looked at pay as you go broadband options and decided that for my needs, the Virgin Mobile Broadband to go solution was the best value. I wanted to give you an update on my experiences and why I ultimately decided to return the device. I ordered the device on New Years day and within a week the package was dropped at my door. The software was easy to install and the installation process was fairly painless. The software comes on the device and took only a few minutes and a quick restart before I was up and running. When the USB dongle is inserted and the Mobile Broadband Connect software running you will see a pop up with the signal strength, network type and a button to connect or disconnect.

Step one was to activate the product and setup a PIN for purchasing minutes. Pretty standard process and web form asking for contact and billing information. You can either use pre-paid “top up” cards or a credit card to purchase minutes. It looks like you don’t have to have a credit card to use the service assuming you have the prepaid cards. If you don’t have any available time, you are directed to a website where you can purchase a data package. This is important because you don’t have to plan ahead and purchase your minutes, you can do so directly from the device. Overall the setup of the device and usage was just as advertised and a smooth process.

I had some trouble with coverage though to be honest, this was not at all unexpected. Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint network and I was a Sprint customer several years ago and switched away from their service because of coverage problems in my city. To make matters worse, my house is situated smack dab in the middle of a notoriously bad dead zone so I have trouble with all the cell providers. Given the fact that I generally wouldn’t need a mobile broadband device at my home, this wasn’t a deal breaker. Though for the occasional cable outage it would be nice to have a backup connection.

Unfortunately the problems continued beyond my home and I also had some trouble using the device at other areas around town. On a couple of occasions I was in open areas that should have great coverage but had trouble connecting at the faster EVDO speeds. I was able to get online and function, but at speeds that were frustratingly slow and made tasks as simple as checking email painful.

It should be noted that with the exception of my iPhone I haven’t had much experience with mobile broadband, so perhaps my expectations were unrealistic. However, I can tell you that checking email and surfing the web on my iPhone at the same location was significantly faster than using the Virgin Mobile (Sprint) network. Nevertheless it generally worked and my purpose was to use the device on the rare occasions I had no other means to connect. So for internet access of last resort, it served my purposes.

The real kicker came on January 27th when Apple released the iPad. I started to question how I would use the iPad and whether that wasn’t a better deal for my needs. At $30 a month for unlimited data or $15 for 250MB, it was a far better value than the Virgin Mobile card and it also benefits from a lack of a contract. I looked at the $130 premium being charged for 3G on the iPad and the $99 I just paid for the Virgin Mobile and couldn’t help but wonder whether that money would be better applied towards an upgraded iPad.

I wasn’t unhappy with the Virgin Mobile device, but I wasn’t thrilled either. Granted, using the device for only a couple of weeks in a limited geographic area wasn’t a great test but I only had a few more days left within my 30 day return window so I didn’t have the luxury of waiting and seeing how things turned out. I had hoped to take the Virgin Mobile device on my upcoming trip to Macworld, but if I was going to return the device for a full refund within my trial window that wasn’t an option. I figured worst case, I could always go out and buy the device again and all I would be out was the $10 I paid for data (which I used so arguably no loss) and the return shipping fees (less than $5) if the iPad didn’t work out for my needs. After all, I had gotten along this long on my iPhone and Wi-Fi alone, I figured a few more months to try out the iPad wouldn’t kill me.

Then the trouble with Virgin Mobile began. Returning the device has been a fiasco. I won’t bore you with all the details but needless to say, I’ve had over a half dozen phone calls to various departments, none of which have been helpful and all of whom have all given me conflicting information. I’ve spent a couple of hours dealing with this and I still don’t have my refund, although Virgin Mobile at least now acknowledges they have my device and the refund is due to be processed. Despite the fact that the product worked reasonably well, the amount of trouble I’ve had with the customer service makes me seriously question whether this is a company I want to do business with.

Still, despite some of the coverage problems and customer service woes, I still really like the idea behind this device. Pay as you go mobile broadband is a great fit for me. I don’t travel much and when I do I tend to stay in places that offer Wi-Fi. I probably only have a handful of occasions every year when I would need to use this type of service so although the price per MB is ridiculous, I will still save a ton of money by using a pay as you go solution compared to a traditional contract. Though I hope that in the future the iPad with a no-contract plan and my iPhone will be enough to get me by. I’m still holding out hope that one day I’ll be able to tether my iPhone and perhaps that will come with a pay as you need it plan as well.

Long story short – the Virgin Mobile Broadband To Go device functioned as advertised and the network, although spotty, was what I expected. If you live or travel within an area that has better Sprint coverage and the plans fit your needs and lifestyle I think this is a product you would be very happy with. However if you do have problems, expect to go 12 rounds with customer service.

Update: March 12, 2010 Good news and bad in this update. Good News: Virgin has upgraded their plans and now on the $20 an up plans you receive more data over a 30 day period. Currently $20 for 300 MB or $40 for 1GB. They've also added a $60 5GB option.

Bad News: After waiting for over a month for Virgin Mobile to refund my money and multiple calls to customer service with no resolution and repeated broken promises, I reluctantly had to file a claim with my credit card company.