If you spend a lot of time travelling around the UK and want to browse the web, or even keep up with your email on your laptop, you’ll soon find that wireless hotspots are often few and far between, particularly outside major cities.
Mobile phone providers have been quick to address this, and the range of mobile internet packages available has grown at a somewhat bewildering rate.
Virgin Mobile’s £15 package provides 3GB of data access per month on an 18-month contract. Larger data allowances aren’t available, and additional data costs £15 for every extra 1GB downloaded. Heavy users should opt for an alternative service provider. Cheaper packages with a lower data allowance are available only as part of Virgin Media’s cable and ADSL broadband bundles.
The Huawei E160 USB modem is self-installing, with a data partition that emulates a CD-ROM, and automatically runs an installer the first time you connect it to a Windows PC or a Mac with OS X 10.4.2 or above. The company’s modems are well supported by Linux, although finding the correct connection settings was a challenge. We were impressed by the ease of installation and by Huawei’s Virgin-branded connection program. Unusually, the modem has a microSD slot, so you can also use it as a memory card reader.
To use the service, simply launch the application and click Connect. The main window displays your connection data, including upload and download speeds, and the amount of data transferred. This lets you keep an eye on your monthly data transfer to avoid exceeding your limit. There’s also a text messaging tab that allows you to send, receive and archive messages, manage your contacts and send bulk texts to contacts chosen by group. Text messages cost a steep 20p each, though.
Virgin uses the T-Mobile network, and claims coverage across 85 per cent of the UK. We managed to get a 3G signal in the middle of Salisbury Plain, as well as in London. Connection speeds can be highly variable and, like wired broadband connections, are unlikely to reach the quoted maximum. Our test device managed download speeds of between 0.4Mbit/s and 0.9Mbit/s, and upload speeds ranging from 112Kbit/s to 213Kbit/s. Outside the UK, you’ll be charged a roaming rate of £5 per MB.
In an increasingly crowded mobile broadband market, Virgin will have to work to set its broadband package apart from the rest. Unfortunately, maximum connection speeds aren’t as fast as those provided on Vodafone or BT contracts (see What’s New, Shopper 241 and 252). Vodafone currently charges the same price for a 12-month 7.2Mbit/s contract, 3 provides a higher download limit and O2 has a one-month contract that costs £15 after you’ve bought the modem. The best one is dependent on your needs – try http://mobile.broadbandgenie.co.uk for detailed help – but Virgin has little to recommend it.