Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go USB device

Every now and then, I find myself somewhere with no free WiFi or Internet connection of any sort, and yet I'd like to connect or do some research online. The most obvious place is on a plane, but, funnily enough, I'm not really bothered about it in that situation. I'm quite happy to sit back and read a book, or watch a TV show on my iPod Touch.

The archetypal place for me is my local Audi dealer: there's free WiFi for customers, but they've blocked off the SMTP port. So you can download your email, but you can't answer any of it. What's even worse, perhaps, is that they've blocked off VPN access too, so I can't even VPN into the DevExpress servers and send email through that. Prior to getting my iPhone, I used to tether through my AT&T Tilt in these situations, but of course, there you're limited to Bluetooth speeds, rather than 3G speeds. iPhone tethering is not yet available through AT&T (and rumors are swirling around about how much it will cost anyway), unless you want to fiddle with the not-quite-legit hacker solutions.

The other issue with AT&T is that iPhone tethering is likely to be an extra cost monthly plan with possibly a 2 year commitment. That's exactly what I don't want. I would only have use for tethering in very rare situations, so I'd prefer having a pay-as-you-go plan at perhaps a higher cost per GB rather than a monthly plan where I'm continually grumbling about shelling out the $30 (or whatever) extra per month.

Yesterday I finally decided to go pick up a Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go from BestBuy (the only place that sells them). It's a USB wireless device (Novatel Ovation MC760) that uses the 3G network for internet connection (Sprint's network as it happens). It also uses a pay-as-you-go type plan for your connections rather than a monthly commitment with a 2 year plan. You can buy several blocks of connection time/resources, anything from $10 for 100MB to $60 for 1GB. However, not only are these pre-paid blocks limited by the amount of data you can transfer, but also by time: they have expiry dates. So, for example, this morning at the Audi dealership I bought the smallest block ($10) and it'll expire in 10 days' time. Nevertheless, I managed to use 25% of it in the 90 minutes I was connected.

The device comes as is, with a lanyard, a quick start guide, and "preloaded software and user guide". But no CD. Ohhhh-kay.

The quick start guide said: "Insert device in an available USB port. Follow on-screen instructions to install device drivers and connection manager." So I did. Vista did its usual installing of device drivers for a new USB device, but that was it. No special "on-screen instructions". No connection manager. What's going on?

Turns out that the device itself has some flash memory and some circuitry that makes the PC think the memory is a CD. No shit. And of course, I have turned off the "open CD-ROM when inserted" option as any sensible person would have, so I didn't get the on-screen instructions automatically. Actually, inserting the device gives you two new removable drives: the quasi-CD-ROM with the install apps (and user guide) on it, and a microSD reader — yes, you can insert a microSD card into the side (the one from my old phone now sits there happily).

So I ran the install app (LiteAuto.exe) and it failed. At which point, I almost took it all back to BestBuy.

But, after working out that I should run the installer as administrator (duh!), I got it all installed and clicked on the Activate button in the Connection Manager. Unfortunately we live in a Sprint backwater: one, maybe two, bars, and so it took a long while to go through all the screens (PIN, name, address, credit card number, etc). Eventually I came to a screen that said, I kid you not, "our servers are experiencing a heavy load, it may take 1 to 2 days to activate". Yeah, just like the day when the iPhone 3GS was launched and several million new devices were being activated, but this was just an ordinary day in the Virgin Mobile universe so they must have told the hamster to clock off early from spinning his wheel.

I phoned up after about 30 minutes of not getting an email announcing my activation (and I still haven't got such a thing). I talked to José and yes the servers were down. He couldn't help. He said to try calling back in 30 minutes. I didn't since I had other things to do (it was about 6:30 by this time) and dinner needed preparing and cooking.

This morning at the Audi dealers I phoned again, and we managed to get everything activated, and the device connected and all was good.

So what do I think of it? Overall, I'm very happy. The dealership had much a better Sprint signal than we have at home and the connection throughput was acceptable for what I was using it for (email, Twitter, IM, some web). I didn't do any explicit testing of download or upload speeds — frankly I'm not too bothered since it's only going to be used as a stopgap solution — but it seemed equivalent to using Safari on the iPhone.

The only downside that I had was that using it continuously doesn't half drain your laptop's battery. The battery in my Dell XPS M1530 lasts just over 2 hours for me doing the work I do, with WiFi active. This morning, with the device connected and online all the time (and WiFi turned off), the battery died after 95 minutes. (And you guessed it: since I was expecting the car service to take less than 2 hours, I hadn't brought my power adapter.) That's some pretty heavy-duty power requirements right there: a drop of 20% in available battery time. I'll certainly do some more testing, but it's something to bear in mind in the future.

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13 Responses

#1 Scott C said...
23-Jul-09 8:53 AM

Julian, have you gotten VPN to work on this modem? I am going round and round with Virgin's technical support - they don't seem to know what VPN is, let alone be able to help me with it. It appears that they haven't opened any ports for VPN access (at least, that's what my network guys tell me).

julian m bucknall avatar
#2 julian m bucknall said...
23-Jul-09 10:14 AM

Scott: Interesting question. I can't say that I've actually tried up to now (I use our company VPN daily, but not through this device yet).

I need to "top up" some connection time -- I'm out at the moment -- so I'll have a try at connecting when I do.

Cheers, Julian

#3 Charles said...
07-Aug-09 2:28 AM


How much does the USB dongle actually cost? I heard 150$ isn't it a bit pricey?

Regards, Charles

julian m bucknall avatar
#4 julian m bucknall said...
09-Aug-09 12:46 PM

Charles: Yes, it's $150 from Best Buy. Pricey? No, not really when you consider the rumors about what it'll cost to tether through the iPhone and AT&T (I heard a possible $30 a month, 2 year commitment, which is $720).

Let's say I use $20 worth every month (it's been a month now since I got it, and that's what I've spent so far -- not exactly a good basis for a statistical argument, I'll admit). With the cost of the device, over two years I'll have spent $630. But then again, I doubt I'll get to that point since the first month is what you might call 'experimentation' and would be an outlier statistically speaking.

Anyway, so far I'm happy with it. I'm still going to seek out WiFi hotspots when I can, but for emergencies this is fine.

Cheers, Julian

julian m bucknall avatar
#5 julian m bucknall said...
09-Aug-09 12:48 PM

Scott: As far as I can see, Windows Vista won't let me connect using VPN. The VPN connection is disabled in Vista when I'm connected to the internet through the device. Not sure why, I'll have to investigate.

Note though I'm just about to upgrade to Windows 7, so it might be different there.

Cheers, Julian

#6 Matt said...
10-Aug-09 8:26 PM

Hi Julian

Have you tried sending out emails using the broadband2go smtp details? If so, did it work and would you be able to post what the smtp details are?

I'm looking at getting one of these but need to be sure I'll be able to send out emails on my private account as well as receive them.

Many thanks!


#7 Bobbie said...
20-Sep-09 10:53 AM

I have had a horrible experience with this product. First, they should have a note before trying to install that service pack 2 is required (it is in the manual but of course that doesn't come printed out in the product). I had service pack 1 installed and could no longer connect to the internet (to upgrade to service pack 2) after trying to install this product (and my PC that I just purchased from Best Buy a month and a half ago worked just fine) and per Jessica in tech support "that is not their problem".

Once "I" fixed my PC, connected to the internet, upgraded to service pack 2 and again tried to install this product it would not activate so I had to call tech support again (and hold for 25 minutes) and they manually setup my account and then it worked(and we live in area that is considered to have the best coverage per their map). This product should be taken off the shelf and fixed then resold again. Shame on you Virgin Mobile and Best Buy.

julian m bucknall avatar
#8 julian m bucknall said...
21-Sep-09 8:36 AM

Bobbie: Must have missed that bit about Service Pack 2. Mind you, I tend to always be on time with installing SPs: goes with the job in a way. Also I'm now using it exclusively with Windows 7 and it works just fine with that.

I will agree that the activation process is terrible. I wonder what will happen now that Sprint own Virgin Mobile...

Cheers, Julian

#9 Pete d'Oronzio said...
28-Oct-09 12:55 PM

Hi Julian: Every few months I'm searching for something and there you are discussing it. Nice. So here we are again.

I also bought one of these things, early August IIRC. I had a new Win 7 (Autorun still enabled) and had it installed and running in a few minutes. Registration was a pain because of connection issues, but when I went upstairs, stood on my tippy-toes leaning against the fireplace, it registered just fine.

However, I have still never succeeded in getting VPN to work. Win 7 lets me configure it and tries to connect, but fails midway in the negotiation. I am left with the assumption that a port is being blocked by Sprint/Virgin. Other than the VPN problem, having this device has been really handy.

Hope all's well with you. If you read this today - enjoy the snow!

julian m bucknall avatar
#10 julian m bucknall said...
28-Oct-09 7:05 PM

Pete: Hi, long time no see/hear! I hope things are going well for you too.

As for VPN access, meh. It doesn't work for me either. It's not really bothered me too much, since I would use VPN infrequently on it anyway (plus, I'd rather connect to company servers with a faster machine: all our internal apps are Click-Once).

Other than that, I'm happy with the device.

Cheers, Julian

#11 Faraz Hussain said...
16-Feb-10 12:13 PM

I too can not get VPN to work using Nortel Contivity . Some googling shows:

To resolve such an issue make sure the following traffic is allowed to pass through the firewalls along the path:

• UDP protocol (17) port 500 both inbound and outbound (should already be allowed if the Nortel VPN Client tries to retrieve a banner);

• ESP protocol (50) both inbound and outbound;

• AH protocol (51) both inbound and outbound.

I emailed them this info through their website. Hopefully if others can keep pestering them they will finally get it fixed. Otherwise it is a great product at an affordable price. I just turn off images/videos when browsing the web and the 250 MB is plenty.

#12 Faraz Hussain said...
19-Feb-10 8:32 AM

I finally miraculously got it to work. I was running Nortel VPN Software - v.4.65v2 . I installed the latest version, v.6.01.141 ( for XP ) and it works perfectly now! So something to do with the older version that caused my hangups.

#13 char said...
14-Oct-10 6:33 PM

1.) Call in to activate (877) 877-8443

I got my card from Radio Shack.

I tried activating it myself and I added the $40 Top Up card but every site I tried to visit sent me back to Virgin Website.

I finally called the phone number above. After waiting almost 20 minutes on the phone the tech support operator said the reason it wasn't working is because when I added the Top UP card I didn't choose a plan.

She converted the $40 to a plan and BINGO! It worked. Hope this helps some of you. I wasted hours searching on the web for (virgin broadband2go activate but sends to virgin website) answers or a proper phone number. Call in and make sure your money was converted into a plan when you added it. It's the only way you can surf the digital waves. Good Luck

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