Someday, they’ll build wireless Internet into every building, just the way they build in running water, heat and electricity today. Someday, we won’t have to drive around town looking for a coffee shop when we need to check our e-mail.
If you want ubiquitous Internet today, though, you have several choices. They’re all compromised and all expensive.
You could get online using only a smartphone, but you’ll pay at least $80 a month and you’ll have to view the Internet through a shrunken keyhole of a screen. You could equip your laptop with one of those cellular air cards or U.S.B. sticks, which cost $60 a month, but you’d be limited to 5 gigabytes of data transfer a month (and how are you supposed to gauge that?). You could use tethering, in which your laptop uses your cellphone as a glorified Internet antenna — but that adds $20 or $30 to your phone bill, has a fixed data limit and eats through your phone’s battery charge in an hour.
Last year, you could hear minds blowing coast to coast when Novatel introduced a new option: the MiFi. It creates a personal Wi-Fi bubble, a portable, powerful, password-protected wireless hot spot that, because it’s the size of a porky credit card, can go with you everywhere. The MiFi gets its Internet signal from a 3G cellphone network and converts it into a Wi-Fi signal that up to five people can share.
You can just leave the thing in your pocket, your laptop bag or your purse to pump out a fresh Internet signal to everyone within 30 feet, for four hours on a charge of the removable battery. You’re instantly online whenever you fire up your laptop, netbook, Wi-Fi camera, game gadget, iPhone or iPod Touch.
The MiFi released by Virgin Mobile this week ($150) is almost exactly the same thing as the one offered by Verizon and, until recently, Sprint — but there’s a twist that makes it revolutionary all over again.
The Virgin MiFi, like its rivals, is still an amazing gizmo to have on long car rides for the family, on woodsy corporate offsite meetings, at disaster sites, at trade show booths or anywhere you can’t get Wi-Fi. If you live alone, the MiFi could even be your regular home Internet service, too — one that you can take with you when you head out the door. And it’s still insanely useful when you’re stuck on a plane on a runway.
But three things about the Virgin MiFi are very, very different. First, Virgin’s plan is unlimited. You don’t have to sweat through the month, hoping you don’t exceed the standard 5-gigabyte data limit, as you do with the cellular-modem products from Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. (If you exceed 5 gigabytes, you pay steep per-megabyte overage charges, or in T-Mobile’s case, you get your Internet speed slowed down for the rest of the month.)
If you hadn’t noticed, unlimited-data plans are fast disappearing — but here’s Virgin, offering up an unlimited Internet plan as if it never got the memo.
Second, Virgin requires no contract. You can sign up for service only when you need it. In other words, it’s totally O.K. with Virgin if you leave the thing in your drawer all year, and activate it only for, say, the two summer months when you’ll be away. That’s a huge, huge deal in this era when every flavor of Internet service, portable or not, requires a two-year commitment.
Third, the service price for this no-commitment, unlimited, portable hot spot is — are you sitting down? — $40 a month.
That’s no typo. It’s $40 a month. Compare that with the cheapest cellular modems from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint: $60 a month. T-Mobile also charges $40 a month for its cellular modems. But all four of those big companies require a two-year contract, and come with those scary 5-gigabyte monthly data limits.
(There’s actually another Virgin plan available, too: you can pay $10 for a 100-megabyte chunk of Internet use that expires in 10 days. It’s intended for people who are heading out for the weekend and just want to keep in touch with e-mail without having to fork over a whole month’s worth of money — and without paying $15 or $25 for each night of overpriced hotel Wi-Fi. And speaking of options, Virgin also offers a standard U.S.B. plug-in cellular modem with exactly the same pricing details.)
I’ve pounded my head against the fine print, grilled the product managers and researched the heck out of this, and I simply cannot find the catch.
Is it the speed? No. You’re getting exactly the same 3G speed you’d get on rival cellular modems and MiFi’s. That is, about as fast as a DSL modem. A cell modem doesn’t give you cable-modem speed, but you’ll have no problem watching online videos and, where you have a decent Sprint signal, even doing video chats.
Is it the coverage? Not really; Virgin uses Sprint’s 3G cellular Internet network, which is excellent. You’re getting exactly the same battery life and convenience of Verizon’s MiFi — for two-thirds the monthly price.
(Why would Sprint allow Virgin to use its data network but undercut its own pricing in such a brazen way? Because Sprint is focused on promoting its 4G phones and portable hot spots — even faster Internet, available so far only in a few cities. For example, its Overdrive portable hot spot is $100 after rebate, with a two-year commitment. The service is $60 a month for 5 gigabytes of 3G data and unlimited 4G data.)
That’s not to say that there’s no fine print whatsoever.
First, the Virgin plan doesn’t include roaming off Sprint’s network; the old Sprint MiFi plans did. According to Virgin, that’s not a big deal — the regular Sprint network covers 262 million people, whereas roaming would cover 12 million more — but it means that you might be out of luck in smaller towns.
Second, the Virgin MiFi can’t plug directly into your computer’s U.S.B. port to act as a wired cellular modem, like other carriers’ MiFi units. You can connect to it only wirelessly, if you care. (You can still charge it from your computer’s U.S.B. jack, but very slowly. A wall outlet or car adapter is a much better bet.)
Finally, remember that the Virgin MiFi is still a MiFi, so it’s a bit uncommunicative. It has only a single, illuminated button that serves as the on-off switch and an indicator light that blinks cryptically in different colors. You have to press that button and wait about 20 seconds before you can get online.
But come on: $40 a month? With no commitment or contract?
I did a little survey of broadband Internet prices among my Twitter followers. Turns out $40 a month is not only a great price for cellular (portable) Internet service — it’s among the lowest broadband prices in America, period. In some areas you can pay $35 a month for DSL service. But most people pay $50 to $60 for high-speed Internet, which makes the Virgin deal seem even more incredible.
And unlike those plans, Virgin lets you turn on service only when you want it. You can buy service — as with a prepaid phone —either by calling an 800 number or visiting a Web site. Handily enough, you can get onto the Virgin Web site to re-activate your MiFi, even if you’d previously stopped paying for service.
The MiFi’s portability has always made it an exceptionally flexible and useful little gadget — and Virgin’s prepaid model, unlimited data plan and dirt-cheap pricing just multiply that flexibility. And if Virgin can make money with a plan like this, the mind boggles at just how overpriced the similar offerings from its rivals must really be.