Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go vs. Sprint Mobile Broadband

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Wednesday, 15 September 2010
For several years now, all of the major 3G mobile broadband carriers have switched from offering "all you can eat" unlimited data service to a 5GB limit, with overage charges for usage beyond 5GB/month. This change was due to the overwhelming popularity to the service, as the carriers had more subscribers than they could handle on their network if each subscriber was using as much data as they wanted. While there are some users who signed up for Sprint or Verizon service when it was unlimited and have been able to keep their  "grandfathered in" unlimited contracts, the carriers often "throttle" their speeds after they exceed 5GB of usage in a month to keep them from using too much data. In other words, unlimited 3G service has been essentially non-existent from any major carrier in the US for a number of years.

A few weeks ago, Virgin Mobile, which uses Sprint's network to provide mobile broadband service, announced that they are now offering unlimited 3G Broadband2Go (3G mobile broadband) service for their MC760 & MiFi devices for only $40/month. While that certainly sounds like a good deal, we were very skeptical when we heard this news. Since Virgin Mobile utilizes Sprint's network, it seemed strange to us that Sprint would allow Virgin to offer unlimited service (particularly at such a low rate!) when their own subscribers are limited to 5GB/month. Why would Sprint allow Virgin users to overload their network? It simply sounded too good to be true. We decided to buy our own Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go MiFi 2200 with the "unlimited service" to see for ourselves whether Virgin's offering is as good as it sounds, and how it compares to service directly from Sprint.

To compare the performance, we took a Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go MiFi 2200 & Sprint MiFi 2200 to a local restaurant where our signal strength was -78 dB (5 bars), and performed speed tests with both devices. Each test was performed in the exact same location, one right after the other, while the other device was powered off to ensure there wasn't any WiFi interference. Since Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's network and towers, one would expect to see the exact same results from both devices - as long as the network itself is treating both devices equally.

Here were our results:

Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go:

Sprint Mobile Broadband:

We expected there might be some difference, but we were shocked to see this big of a difference from the two services, considering they both use Sprint's 3G network! Per our testing, Virgin Mobile's service is only providing about 1/4 of the performance that Sprint devices are getting, in the exact same location. We continued to test with the Virgin Mobile MiFi, and our average speeds were 0.30 to 0.40 mbit/sec; the fastest speeds we were able to see was 0.60 mbit/sec in the middle of the night when there was probably no one else on the network. The Sprint MiFi consistently provided speeds that were several times faster in the same location. This tells us that Virgin Mobile subscribers are getting second priority on Sprint's network - they are essentially being given the "leftover" bandwidth available that's not being used by Sprint subscribers.

Since we consistently got very poor performance from the Virgin Mobile devices, we wondered "how useful is having an unlimited service if it's consistently this slow?" To see how much noticeable difference the slower Virgin service would impact our everyday use, one of our testers switched to the Virgin MiFi as his primary internet connection for a couple of days. He immediatley noticed a significant difference in how fast web pages loaded, especially websites that had rich media content such as Flash, or pages that contained a lot of high quality photos. FTP file transfers took about 5 times longer than they took while he was using the Sprint MiFi, because upload speeds were so much slower, which made a big difference in his work day since we upload a lot of content to our servers for our website.

Next, we decided to see how well we could use bandwidth-intensive services like Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube, which subscribers with the 5GB limit tend to shy away from. With average speeds of 0.40mbit/sec from the Virgin device, any streaming video service that we used constantly stuttered and bufferred every 30 seconds because they couldn't keep up with the bandwidth requirements for video streaming. This was very frustrating - unlimited service would have come in very handy for streaming video, something we don't typically like to do with a Sprint/Verizon device that has the 5GB limit (because streaming video will help you hit that limit very quickly), but it was nearly unusable. And with these terrible upload speeds and longer latency times you can forget about online gaming!

After our testing and comparing to Sprint's service, we felt very let down by the Virgin service. What's the point of having unlimited service if the performance is so poor that you can't use bandwidth-intensive services? While the 5GB allowance is limiting for some users (many users never come close to 5GB anyway, but we certainly understand that some do), trading that limitation for a performance limitation seems like a bad trade-off in our opinion. Wouldn't you prefer a faster connection that allows you to browse websites faster, watch video, download and upload files quickly, etc (even if you have to keep an eye on your usage throughout the month) to a connection with unlimited usage that you can't use for anything remotely bandwidth-intensive? We'd prefer a faster connection ourselves, but tell us what you think at our Sprint vs. Virgin Mobile discussion on

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 September 2010 )
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