About a week ago, Virgin Mobile USA announced a new unlimited cellular broadband package. For $40/month (no contract), you can use one of their mobile broadband devices to connect to the Internet and use as much bandwidth as you desire.
Since I am still stuck with satellite broadband service at home, I decided to try it out. I’ve been looking into mobile broadband packages for quite a while, but the thought of signing a new two-year contract, paying almost as much as I’m paying now (the satellite package I have is $79.95/month – most mobile broadband packages are around $60/month) and being limited to around 2 gigabytes of downloads each month (my current plan allows 17 gigs on a revolving 30-day basis) really didn’t appeal to me.
This new plan from Virgin, though, had me intrigued. No contracts, apparently no bandwidth limits (I have seen no official word from Virgin as to whether there will be “reasonable use” limits imposed at any point, but, right now, it doesn’t look like it) and a price point half of what I am paying now all really appealed to me.
I headed out to WalMart (according to Virgin’s website, WalMart is one of their retail partners, though, when I got to WalMart, they told me they weren’t carrying Virgin Mobile’s products anymore). There was one MiFi 2200 device left, so I picked it up, along with a $40 “top-up” card. The MiFi 2200 is a “mobile hotspot” device. It acts as a wireless router, allowing you to connect up to 5 separate wifi-enabled devices to it at any time. I came home, plugged it in and let it charge for a while.
Activating the Device
Activating the device was kind of a pain, honestly. It starts out easy enough; you simply turn on the MiFi, tell your computer to hook to it, type in the passkey printed on the bottom of the device and direct your browser to http://virginmobile.mifi (apparently a domain alias for the IP address of the device). You type in a little bit of information and submit the form on that page.
Then, it attempts to communicate with Virgin Mobile’s website. This is where I ran into trouble. I’ve seen reports that the device will allow you to communicate with Virgin’s website even if the device isn’t activated, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if the device itself was just being unresponsive or if it just doesn’t work until it’s activated.
So, I had to switch from the MiFi to my main wifi network to allow my computer to communicate with their server. Then, I had to provide a bit more information and submit another form. Throughout the process, I think I had to switch back and forth between my home wifi network and the MiFi device two or three times before I was finally able to get it activated and set up.
Testing It Out
Once I finally got it set up and activated, I took it for a test drive (not literally, though, since it’s a mobile device, I certainly could have – maybe another time). I started out by trying to go to Speedtest.net and test it out. Unfortunately, the first couple of times I tried to test the connection speed, it failed miserably. After turning the device off and back on again, things started working better.
Speed and Latency
To start out, I tested the speed and latency of my satellite connection. At the time I tested it, my satellite connection was getting an average of 1.25-1.5 megabits per second (which is actually pretty high for my satellite broadband) with latency of around 1,500-2,000 milliseconds (that’s 1.5-2 seconds). The upload speeds averaged around .05 megabits per second.
Then, I switched over to the MiFi and ran the speed test on it. After testing a handful of servers, I ended up with an average speed somewhere between 0.75 and 1 megabits per second. The latency, on the other hand, averaged around 150 milliseconds (that’s less then 10% of the latency experienced with the satellite connection). The upload speeds averaged around .5 megabits per second (that’s ten times the upload speeds reported from my home connection).
I then did some real world testing, trying to visit various websites I frequent. On some of the sites, I was extremely impressed at how quickly they loaded. Others seemed to take forever; though, I think that’s more an issue with the device itself (occasionally it seems a bit unresponsive) than it is with the actual connection. Of course, the slow response may have also been related to the amount of traffic on those specific websites, too.
Then, since I’ve had so much trouble getting YouTube and Hulu to work well on my home connection, I decided to pop on over to those sites and test them out. I was impressed with the way they both worked. Although neither site played videos perfectly, they certainly performed much better than my satellite connection (Hulu doesn’t even try to play videos when I use my home connection).
For the first round of tests, I was using the family computer, which runs Linux Mint as the operating system. I was using the Linux version of Chrome for most of the browsing I was doing. When I visited Speedtest.net, it indicated that I was located somewhere out in California.
The next day, I started testing the connection from my personal computer, which runs Windows 7. I did most of my browsing using Chrome for Windows. When I visited Speedtest.net again, it indicated that I was located somewhere in New York or New Jersey. I tested the speed again, and found that the upload and download speeds were slightly lower than they were the night before.
It should also be noted that, while testing the first night, the browser was the only thing I had open and that computer was the only thing I had connected to the MiFi hotspot. During the second round of testing, I also had my iPhone connected to the hotspot and was running Outlook, Tweetdeck and a few other things in the background.
As mentioned above, the slower connection of the MiFi will make it a longer process to download large files.
In addition, you have to be aware of the fact that you can only connect 5 wifi-enabled devices to the MiFi hotspot at one time. If you’re anything like me, that might pose a bit of an issue. I counted up the number of devices in our house that are regularly connected to the Internet, and figured out we have twice as many as we’re allowed, so we will need to disconnect some devices in order to connect others if we choose to stick with this plan (though, since the MiFi is half the price of our current satellite connection, we could conceivably pick up two of them in order to keep things even).
Also, based on the information provided by Speedtest.net, it looks like the MiFi device might connect to different servers each time you turn it on, so you may get varied performance depending on which server you end up connected to.
If you are a satellite customer, this may be a very real alternative for you. Although the speed is considerably lower than the satellite connection, the much lower latency and higher upload speeds more than make up for it in most situations. If you are downloading a lot of large files, they will obviously download slower than they will over satellite (for instance, if a huge file usually takes one hour to download over satellite, it will probably take about an hour and a half over the MiFi).
However, if you’re just doing standard browsing, the connection will actually seem much faster. Because you won’t be waiting almost two seconds (or more, depending on current latency and upload speeds), that means that the MiFi connection basically gets a two second headstart on the satellite connection.
If you assume that an average Web page is around 500 kilobytes (some fancier sites will be considerably larger than that, but most simple pages will be a good bit smaller), let’s look at the perceived load times for the MiFi versus the satellite connection. Based on an average speed of 1.5 megabits (1/8 of a megabyte) per second and a latency of 2,000 milliseconds, it will take approximately 4.6 seconds to download a 500 kilobyte page or file over satellite. However, to download that same page over the MiFi, assuming an average download speed of 1 megabit per second and an average latency of 200 milliseconds, it will take approximately 4.1 seconds to download a 500 kilobyte page or file.
If you are a current DSL or Cable customer, making the switch probably wouldn’t make much sense; though, depending on your current plan, this might actually be a tiny bit faster than some of the lower-end DSL plans.
Obviously there is still a good bit more testing I’ll need to do before I make a final decision, but at this point, I am pretty pleased with the service.
I will be doing a bit of travelling over the next few months. I’m planning to keep our satellite connection active during that time so that I can take the MiFi along with me when I travel. I will be doing some more testing, comparing it to the connections in my hotel rooms (although, in at least one of the hotels, I’m apparently expected to pay $9.95/day for the wifi, so I will be using my MiFi all by itself rather than running comparisons).