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When Virgin Mobile introduced its $40/month unlimited mobile broadband service a couple months ago, I was pretty excited.

I’ve been looking for a more convenient way to access my personal email and doing the occasional net surfing without using my company’s internet connection or computers. I’ve accomplished this over the years by taking my notebook or iPod Touch to the Starbucks down the street and using their free WiFi while on a break.

I had a trial period with mobile internet on my cellphone through US Cellular, but it was horribly lame and slow. With USCC, you don’t get a browser– for $20 per month you get a menu with content that they choose for you; after the trial period I dropped the service. The options from the other mobile carriers were simply expensive and unattractive (a line that’s just begging for a punchline, but I’ll leave it to you).

The Virgin Mobile plan costs $40 for 30 days with unlimited data and no contract. Finally, a truly tempting offer. With no contract requirement, I had 30 days to try out the service and if I didn’t like it I could return the internet device and I wouldn’t have to pay a cancellation fee. Count me in.

Since I want to connect more than one device to the internet at a time, I figured the Novatel MiFi 2200 device offering would do the job: it allows up to 5 devices to share the same broadband connection. The unit was on sale at Walmart.com for under $100, so I ordered one and a $40 broadband “top up” card to load up the service.

Configuring the device was very easy: the brief instruction card and menu options got me up and running on my MacBook Pro in just minutes. The first time out, you need to register for an account, but that’s not complicated at all: the system walks you through each step. The MiFi device has a preprogrammed SSID and password, which you can change if you wish, and getting your devices talking to the MiFi is no more involved than connecting to any other WiFi router.

Now for the interesting stuff: performance.

I had high expectations for the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go service, and my first experience was very disappointing. The service– at least what reaches my dining room– was very slow. A speed test told me I was getting on average 200-300 kbits a second, which is better than dial-up but nowhere near the 600 to 1400 kbits Virgin Mobile promises in their marketing material. Subsequent tests around the house and neighborhood over the next several weeks frequently put me in the sub-100 kbit/sec range, which is getting close to dial-up speeds.

Virgin uses the Sprint broadband network, so I used antennasearch.com to find the nearest Sprint tower. It turns out there’s one about a mile away, so I drove there with the MiFi unit and my iPod Touch: when parked within several hundred feet of the tower my service speeds jumped to over 1 Mbit/sec.

According to Virgin Mobile’s support staff and what I’ve read on the forums at DSL Reports, Virgin had a huge wave of new customers once they introduced the unlimited plan, and they admitted their infrastructure couldn’t handle all the new traffic. Over several weeks in September they said they were upgrading their network and customers should see improvment: as I write this in early November, the speeds have only become marginally better.

Real World Performance:

I live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and I work downtown in the city. I’ve used the device at my home and office, and all throughout my commute, including the train line that leads to the city. I tried out the service on longer trips on interstates, including I-57 in Illinois and I-65 in Indiana. I also brought the unit along to see how it performed in a rural area of Indiana and in downtown Seattle. Here’s what I discovered:

Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go’s performance in all these locations was pretty much the same: download speeds in the 300-500 kbit range are the norm, with the occasional burst to almost 1 Mbit. Even in the rural areas the service held to the high end of these numbers, presumably because there was less traffic on the network.

This speed range works fine for checking e-mail, surfing the web, chatting via text over Skype, and doing other low-bandwidth things with your computer or portable device. If you’re lucky to have a solid signal, you may be able to do streaming audio. Anything beyond this will tax the connection and your patience.

It does an acceptable job with iPhone apps that use Location Services (e.g. Maps): around Chicago and in Seattle it reported our location accurately within a half-block, but in the rural areas it would sometimes put us over 10 miles from where we actually were. In one case, we were in Kankakee, Illinois and we registered as being in Boston.

The service fails when it comes to higher-bandwidth applications. Skype video and voice chat won’t work at all, and Netflix streaming is essentially unusable– you’ll get 10 seconds of video for every 5 minutes of loading and buffering.

VirginMobile’s customer service is easy enough to contact, but the staff seems to work only from their scripts. I entered a detailed trouble report through their e-mail system, and it took them three weeks to get back to me to say my trouble ticket was being closed because I should have called their help line. When I called the help line the person on the phone said to wait two hours while they “reprovisioned” my device: I saw no improvement in performance.

They also have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, but my experiences with both of these have been very disappointing: the Facebook page seems to be focused entirely on marketing, and while the Twitter person would respond to my requests and say she’d get back to me, she never did unless I pinged her again– her last response to me was addressed to “Gordon” which tells me I wasn’t going to get anywhere anyway.

All that said, I’m still using the service because it’s better than not having it at all. I don’t think it’s really worth the $40– it’s more of a $20-level service– and I’m on the fence, ready to jump if a competitor introduces a better product. And the good thing is that if I do jump, I won’t have to pay to get out of a contract.

My recommendation: if you want broadband access where you can’t normally get it, this may be a solution for you. My only advice is to have realistic expectations of its performance.

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