Prepaid Mobile Broadband

Over the past few years, we've seen mobile broadband explode in popularity. (Note that I use the term broadband with some skepticism.) However, we've also seen devices like the iPhone which taken over a lot of the functions people use to use full-fledged laptops for. The availability of Wi-Fi has also become more ubiquitous in many airports and hotels offer free or pay options to their customers. The need for a mobile broadband device to connect your computer may be decreasing as Wi-Fi and "smart devices" come with connectivity. Though there are still times when you need to get your laptop online and no Wi-Fi is available. For those times, it would be nice to have the option to pull out a mobile broadband card and get online. Traditional mobile broadband plans have required two-year minimum contract. Verizon and AT&T both have lower-level plans that range between $35 and $40 a month for between 200 and 250 MB of data. Standard 5 GB mobile plans cost around $60 a month. For traditional wireless data plan, I can expect to pay somewhere between $842 to  $1,440 over the course of a two-year contract plus, the cost of the equipment which can vary between free and a couple of hundred dollars depending on the device purchased.

When I look back on the past year, there have probably only been a handful of times that I would have liked to have mobile broadband access for my computer but I didn't otherwise have coverage. If tethering my iPhone to my computer would seem to be an ideal solution. Unfortunately, here in the states AT&T has failed to launch tethering and given the current state of the AT&T network, no one realistically believes it will see this as viable option any time soon.  $1,400 over the life of a 2 year contract seems an awfully steep price to pay for something that I really wouldn't use all that often.

For few years now, I have been looking for a pay-as-you-go broadband solution but until recently there have been no plans available.  Within the past 6 months, Virgin Mobile (a pre-paid MVNO that uses the Sprint Network) launched a service called Broadband2Go. Verizon has also announced the availability of prepaid mobile broadband. My hope is that with two carriers coming on board we'll start to see others follow and more competition in this space.

You're going to pay more per MB of data using a pre-paid plan. For example, a 5GB plan at $60 a month with a monthly contract is about $0.01 per MB. As of the time of this writing, here's a breakdown of the plans and the cost per MB (rounded to the nearest penny) for the Virgin and Verizon prepaid plans.

Typical Contract Plan

  • $60 for 5GB per month = $0.01 per MB


  • $15 for 75 MB (use within 1 day) = $0.20 per MB
  • $30 for 250 MB (use within 1 week) = $0.12 per MB
  • $50 for 500 MB (use within  30 days) = $0.10 per MB

(1 day is a 24 hour period, 1 week is 7 days)

Virgin Mobile

  • $10 for 100 MB (use within 10 days) = $0.10 per MB
  • $20 for 250 MB (use within 30 days) = $0.09 per MB
  • $40 for 600 MB (use within 30 days) = $0.06 per MB
  • $60 for 1GB (use within 30 days) = $0.05 per MB

Obviously, the cost per MB of data is significantly more expensive with a prepaid plan. Looking at cost per MB alone, these plans make no sense. But if you start to look at your realistic overall usage, then a prepaid plan can save the occasional user significant money over the course of a year.

There are a couple of things to consider when looking at these pre-paid plans. First is the quality of the network. When comparing the Virgin Mobile (Sprint) and Verizon wireless networks, Verizon by far has more coverage. But if you live and travel mainly within the coverage area of the carrier this becomes less of an issue. Second, is your use.  Are you more likely to need data to use over the course of a couple of days, or just for one instance at a time? How many times on an average month or year do you see yourself using the device? Third is the price of the device. With prepaid plans you typically don't get a discount on the device. WIth Virgin Mobile, you have one choice, the Ovation MC760 by Novatel Wireless for $99. Verizon has more hardware options that start at $120 and up.

In my case, I see myself mainly needing relatively small amounts of data usage for one time access. Or perhaps slightly larger amounts for a trip over a couple of days.    So the Virgin Mobile option looks like it will work best for my needs. My best guess is I'll probably use the device 4-6 times a year and spend $10 -$20 each time. After paying $100 for the card and assuming I use the $20 plan six times a year (which is probably high) I've spent $220 a year for my first year of access compared to $720 I would pay for a monthly data plan.

After doing the math, I'm sold. I've ordered a Broadband2Go USB device from Virgin Mobile's online store. I managed to find a special where I get my first $20 of service free and plan to use that when I travel for Macworld if an opportunity doesn't present itself sooner. It may be a while before I need to use the card, but when I do, I'll post an update and let you know how it all works out.