Monday, December 08, 2008

Virgin Mobile Broadband

iBurst are shutting down their proprietary WiMax-like wireless network in Australia by 19 December 2008. So I signed up for Virgin Mobile Broadband at $39 a month with a free USB wireless modem and 5Gb of data. The modem is a HUAWEI E169.

The same USB modem is also offered with a Virgin pre-paid broadband service. This seems to be much more widely available from retailers than the post-paid service, which seems to be only from a few Virgin mobile stores. I got mine from the only one in Canberra, at Belconnen Mall. Applying for mobile broadband is much the same as signing up for a phone service. One annoyance is Virgin's poor attempts at humour, including a question on the form asking if you are a "pirate".

The modem comes in a DVD case sized box. There is the USB modem, a USB extension cable and a short instruction booklet. The installation software for Windows (I used Windows XP) is on the USB modem (it can also double as a Fash drive with a slot for a micro SD card). I plugged in the modem and the system recognised it and started the software installation process, which took a couple of minutes.

I then had an extra button to click on for the Virgin Broadband. This starts an application which provides a useful monitor of the connection, showing which network you are connected to and what rate the up and download is. Initially this reported UTMS at 7.2 Mbps, but later dropped back to GPRS at about 64 kbps. Attaching the modem to a curtain at the window seemed to help, with the modem then switching back to UTMS. In theory the link runs at up to 512/384 kbps, but seems much slower than iBurst's 512 kbps service. The modem has a socket for an external antenna, none are currently supplied, but an after market unit may help.

The first step after establishing a connection is to sign up on the Virgin web site. Opening a web browser (I used Firefox) results in redirection to the Virgin site. You fill in your name and preferred user id and password. It then took three minutes for the system to respond, with the Virgin home page appearing logo by logo painfully slowly. It is a shame that Virgin did not take the trouble to optimise their web site for fast loading, for customers using slower wireless links.

At this point it gets a little confusing as the site appears to be designed for mobile phone customers as well as broadband ones. I tried logging in several different ways, but was asked for my mobile phone number (not helped by more attempts at humour in the instructions). I am not a Virgin phone customer so it was not clear to me if this actually leads to anything useful for me. At this point I phoned the very helpful staff at the Belconnen Virgin store who explained the device did actually have a phone number, which is the "your new number" on the back of the box. With this knowledge I was able to log into Virgin's poorly designed customer account web site. This site, for example, suppresses the scroll bar on the web browser, making it very difficult to scroll down the page. In any case the option I wanted, which was to apply for direct debit, appears to not be available online (you have to send in a paper form).

But, hopefully if the service works okay I will not have to look at the Virgin web site very often. Mobile phone companies seem to struggle with making usable web sites. Vodafone have been unable to get their customer site to work properly after years of trying.

Virgin also offer "broadband at home", with a mains powered router which also provides a phone connection, for $60 a month. I tried this in the store and the sound quality of the phone service was excellent, But the catch is that it is not mobile: that is while it uses the mobile network and there is nothing technically stopping you moving it, Virgin require you to advise them if you move house. I wanted a mobile service I could carry around with my laptop.

There are some routers which work with USB dongles. According to one discussion on Whirlpool forum the Billion BiPAC 7402GXL dual-interface ADSL2+ / Mobile Broadband router is compatible with the Virgin USB modem. But I will see how well it works directly to the PC first.

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1 comment:

GoodToBeWithYou said...

I got one of these too, for the holidays, in the first instance, but also as disconnection risk-management for when I change internet providers, they say everything will happen pronto, but Murphy will be nearby for sure.
AS such I went with the prepaid option, which means I just buy a quota for the hols, which I have 30 days to use, and can let the account it lie fallow till, say, Easter, when I go away again. Also, I figure just having mobile internet will be quite addictive, so being able to keep the connection at just $15 for 550mb and per month is pretty easy to convince yourself is a very marginal expense, and saves calorie consumption.
I tested it at the Woodford Folk Festicval site, which is pretty remote, and it got a conection up. I won't be streaming live full frame rate video onto ustream of anything, but I might blog the festival.
Good one Virgin, the only thing i suggest is: put the phone number that the stick is licensed to on the actual stick, or somewhere else handy for when you don't have the dvd case with you. Or is that just me having a serial senior's moment?