I decided to join the mobile 3G modem age, and last week I bought the Virgin Broadband2Go USB modem from BestBuy ($99.99) with $20 (300 MB) of pay-as-you-go service for a 30-day period. As PC World reported last year, Virgin resells Sprint’s EVDO 3G broadband service on an a la carte plan.
Sprint/NexTel sells a USB modem for $249.99. Today it is on sale for business customers, a $150 “instant savings” (making it comparable to the BestBuy price) with a $50 mail-in rebate (but with a non-working store URL). I would love to have 4G service, but the rollout is limited and the modem, very pricey ($299.00). This week, the modem is free if you buy it online as you also sign up for a $59.99 a month service plan. That’s still pricey. (There are no pre-paid data plans.) No thanks.
In comparison, Verizon’s a la carte plan is $30 for 250MB (expires after 7 days) and their cheapest 3G modem is $129.99. AT&T does not have pre-paid data plans.
These prepaid data plans are not for heavy Net use (YouTube streaming, huge file exchange). It’s for email, light web browsing, Twitter. However, I slipped up and downloaded a Silverlight update without too much of a hit: after a couple of hours use on Friday, I still have 270 MB remaining.
The speed on my Lenovo netbook at home in Lynnwood isn’t stellar: 0.81 Mbps down and 0.15 Mbps up. Sprint claims download speeds of 600Kbps – 1.4 Mbps, so mine is at the low end. In contrast, my iPhone just downloaded at 2654 kbps (127 for upload) using the Speedtest.net iPhone app. No one should be able to market any of these services as “fast” but unfortunately that’s what “broadband” means to most folks.
The Pain of Activation
If you think the Virgin service is for you, and you own a Mac, you’re definitely going to need to phone in for activation. And there is no phone number on the slip of paper that comes with the modem. If you are on a PC, you’ll probably want to call.
The Virgin Broadband2Go activation number: 877-877-8443.
Whether you are using a Mac or a PC, you will need to install the drivers that come with the modem. Plug it into an open USB port and follow the installation prompts.
The Virgin Connect software is PC-only. If that tidbit was on the installation “booklet” I don’t recall seeing it, and there is no warning when I installed the drivers on the Mac. So after fiddling with the Mac for 5-10 minutes, I pulled out the Lenovo.
After you install the drivers and the connect software, that “disconnect” button to the left reads “activate.” When I clicked it, it launched the browser and sent it to a dead link.
At this point in time, I started searching Google for help. On the MacBookPro.
Thanks to Google, I found an activation page that worked, but by now I was in a hurry and frustrated. I typed the product number in the field for the ESN (if they would just call these things “serial numbers” I think I would not make this sort of error). Of course, I got a fail. So I tried it on the Lenovo and got the same result.
Now I threw up my hands and tried to find a phone number. I first searched Virgin’s site (using Google). Then I found the second forum thread, the one with the toll-free number: 877-877-8443.
Talking with the support guy (not a long wait), I momentarily felt stupid for misreading the product serial number. And I kept him on the phone until I had the $20 card attached to my account and the Lenovo connected. I thought.
Activation Is Really A Two-Step Process
I got to the Seattle Convention Center, where I wanted this hardware solution as a backup to public wifi. I found the meeting room, met up with Betsy Aoki, and sat down to make sure the Lenovo would connect. It wouldn’t.
Call Virgin again.
Once again, not a long hold time. This time, I got a woman in tech support. She explained that even though I had $20 in my account, it had not yet been applied to my airtime. I explained that the guy I’d been on the phone with earlier in the morning had neglected to tell me about this key (if redundant – why else would I be adding a $20 Broadband2Go card to my account?) step.
I explained that I was in a hurry – and in my haste I could not find the screenshot of the two number strings that Virgin had assigned to my account when I activated the hardware. She asked if I would give her my password so that she could do whatever had to be done. Of course! So, another 5-10 minutes of fiddling and I finally got the account running.
My rough estimate is that I had more than an hour invested in trying to get the USB card working. But it was finally fine. And we needed it as back-up, so the aggravation was worth it.
But the hardware would still not work on the Mac.
The Pain of Installation On The Mac
This installation process is about as far from plug-and-play as I have experienced on a Mac in a very long time. Here’s the Novatel instruction set.
On my MacBookPro, this is what the System Preferences “network connection” default looked like after the driver installation. Phone number? I need a phone number?
Note: if the Virgin hardware does not show up in network after you install the drivers, then you will need to click the “+” at the bottom left and add it. (I clicked “add” to see what would happen, and then deleted the first instance, which is how I wound up with a “2” appended to the name.)
I called my new configuration “Virgin.” (Don’t get me started on the fact that modems are tied to carriers, just like phones – grrrrrrr. Can you imagine if you car would only run on one brand of gasoline?) After doing that, you need to select the “Advanced” button to configure the hardware.
Ensure the Vendor is Novatel and Model is CDMA, then click OK. I left everything else at defaults. It still feels weird to see the traditional “modem” information about tone v pulse and sound.
So there you have it. Relatively inexpensive 3G access for your laptop if you can’t tether your mobile phone.
For those of us who are not road warriors, this seems like a pretty reasonable way to access the Net in the absence of reasonably priced wifi. For sure it makes more sense than paying $10 or more for a day’s connection at an airport when all you have is an hour and all you want to do is check mail. (Yes, I can check mail on my phone – but it’s faster to check and answer with a keyboard.)