Virgin is offering an impressive-sounding deal with its Virgin Mobile Broadband 7.2Mb USB modem 3G adaptor. This is supplied for use with a high-speed 7.2Mb/s mobile broadband service. With that kind of speed, there's little need for a fixed-line ADSL or cable service for most people's everyday needs.
Superfast mobile broadband is a great asset, but only if the mobile network actually delivers what it promises.
Like other networks, Virgin Media provides the necessary USB adaptor, in this case a rebranded Alcatel One Touch X200S HSPA USB modem. This is a shiny black stick the size of a large USB flash memory drive, 80x22x12mm, with a removable dust cap on the contacts end. Pull this off and you'll also find the slot for the Virgin SIM card. On one side of the stick is another empty slot for a microSD card, so the modem can double as a USB memory storage when plugged in.
Virgin describes its new 'super-quick offering' as 'one of the fastest ways to get online on the move'. Virgin doesn't have its own mobile phone network, but instead piggybacks on T-Mobile's. In our testing, we found that we were (perhaps unsurprisingly) denied the full advertised 7.2Mb/s service. But more remarkably, we couldn't even get one-tenth of this speed.
Virgin sells the Virgin Mobile Broadband 7.2Mb USB modem stick for £24.99, with 1GB of total data over one month costing another £10; or 3GB data can be pre-paid for £15. Alternatively, you can sign up for an 18 month contract, at the same monthly rates, but with the USB dongle then provided without additional cost.
Once the modem is plugged into a USB port, all the necessary PC drivers and software must be installed from the stick itself. It's a dual platform system, with software included for Windows and Mac computers. We tested the Virgin Mobile Broadband 7.2Mb USB modem on an Apple MacBook Pro (Early 2008) and a Samsung NB30 netbook.
Installation was straightforward on both, although admin-level privileges were required on the Mac as the software installs kernel extensions in the computer's System directory. An unusual reboot is required here.
The Virgin Mobile Broadband interface panel is used to connect and disconnect, and provides basic information about time connected, and data sent/received. Also here is a tab for entering SMS texts, and a settings panel. Here you can specify if you'd prefer just UMTS/HSPA or EDGE/GPRS, or to automatically switch as necessary. Potentially useful but barely visible is a tiny five-bar signal strength meter. We usually saw 'UMTS' indicated in this panel. But even with all signal bars lit, we experienced disappointingly low data rates when we tried the service.
We tested at several locations around greater London, including our office near the British Library, Crystal Palace in south London, and at several points in between. Latency figures were around 250ms – poor figures by fixed-line standards but quite typical for UK mobile broadband. More worrying, we only once briefly saw a download speed that touched 0.43Mb/s. Average speeds were actually closer to 0.18Mb/s. Upload speeds were a little better, averaging around 0.46Mb/s.
To check if there may be an issue with the USB modem hardware rather than T-Mobile's data service, we tried the Virgin SIM in a Novatel Mi-Fi 2352 3G modem unit. Here we saw upload speeds now averaging 0.30Mb/s, but downloads a little faster than before, at a more steady 0.24Mb/s.
So while the download rates with a different modem were fractionally higher, they were all still more than an order of magnitude lower than the advertised speed. On top of poor connection speeds, we also noticed – as with other 3G data services we've tried – that web browsing is of a lower quality than with a wired connection.
All web page images are recompressed before being delivered to you, presumably while passing through the T-Mobile network provider's servers – rather like the Opera web browser's Turbo mode. So expect fuzzy pictures, swirly compression artefacts and severe banding in any colour gradients. Some UK networks give the option to switch this off but we couldn't find this facility with Virgin Media's service.
We already know that mobile broadband is an erratic, unpredictable way to get online. Maybe we were just unlucky in every one of five locations we tried, but we found the Virgin Mobile Broadband service to be plain slow. It was usable, but significantly below the service advertised. Based on our experiences, we’d advise a prospective customer – assuming you’re looking for speeds that match or exceed broadband technology of a decade ago – to look elsewhere.