Virgin's upgraded mobile broadband is good value and easy to use, but better deals with higher monthly download limits are available.
Virgin Mobile’s 3.6Mbit/s mobile broadband service put in a decent performance when we tested it last year, with download speeds of between 0.4Mbit/s and 0.9Mbit/s; however, pricing and packages weren’t very competitive. Virgin has now introduced new packages and a theoretical maximum download speed of 7.2Mbit/s thanks to a new USB dongle.
We performed speed tests at our Central London offices at several different times of day. Signal strength was good and we consistently had either a UMTS or HSPA 3G connection. Download speeds varied a great deal, from 0.4Mbit/s to 1.09Mbit/s.
Considering that the original tests we ran last year using the 3.6Mbit/s dongle had download speeds ranging between 0.4Mbit/s and 0.9Mbit/s, the new dongle doesn’t offer a vast speed improvement over the old one.
Virgin uses the T-Mobile network, which covers 85 per cent of the UK’s population. The results from our Broadband Price Test last year showed that our readers had experienced relatively poor download speeds from T-Mobile, averaging just 0.58Mbit/s. This made it the slowest mobile broadband network in our survey. These results are in keeping with the speeds we saw from Virgin’s service, although in practice, our connection was fast and stable enough for all our usual online activities, from watching videos to checking our email.
The supplied dongle is a TCT Alcatel One Touch X200S. It worked perfectly under Windows and Mac OS X – its built-in storage contains drivers for both. The simple connection utility makes it easy to see how much data you’ve sent and received, which is handy if you’re trying to keep within your account’s monthly allowance. You can also add phone contacts, send text messages and open a window to browse the contents of a microSD card inserted into a slot on the dongle.
Virgin’s range of packages is refreshingly simple. You can choose between an 18 month contract with a free modem or a flexible contract with a minimum period of just two months and a £25 fee to cover the cost of the modem. Both contracts cost £10 per month for a 1GB download limit or £15 a month with a 3GB limit.
If you use more bandwidth than that, Virgin Mobile charges just 1.46p per MB (around £15 per GB); this compares well with other providers, such as 3, which charges 10p per out-of-bundle MB (around £100 per GB). It’s not a good choice for world travellers, though – you’ll be charged £5 per MB if you’re outside the UK.
This service doesn’t break any speed records, despite the new fast dongle, but it provided a reasonably fast and very stable connection in our tests. Prices compare well to the rest of the market, particularly on the £15 contracts. However, competition is stiff and other providers are starting to offer higher monthly bandwidth limits. Three has a 3.6Mbit/s service with similar real download speeds, a £10 dongle, 5GB transfer limit and one-month minimum contract period for £15/month. It’s a better deal for most people.