Prepaid wireless Internet a great idea, but can you afford it?

Fans of prepaid cellphones will love Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go, a USB device that provides pay-as-you go wireless Internet service without an annual contract.

What they may not love so much is the price, or at least the initial $150 to buy it.

On the plus side, Virgin Mobile's prices to buy megabytes to browse the Web, watch videos and read e-mails are fair enough if you don't mind paying $10 for about five hours of Web browsing or 25 minutes of video.

Virgin Mobile sent me one a few weeks ago to try out, and after about 30 minutes trying to figure out how to connect it with the help of a service representative, it worked well. Coverage was in and out and I got disconnected a few times, but overall I stayed connected long enough to be online for an hour or so at a time.

While there are plenty of mobile broadband devices that heavily subsidize the device with a lengthy contract, the $150 price for Broadband2Go is worth it because it's a one-time cost without a contract attached, said Matt Berberian, director of customer experience at Virgin Mobile, in a telephone interview.

I see Berberian's point, but I doubt if many people who want such a service will pay $150 for something that isn't meant for heavy, long-term use.

The market is "casual broadband" or the "casual traveler," Berberian said, or small business owners. It isn't for anyone who wants to be connected all of the time while on the road.

"We think of the product as a bridge between home Internet and work," he said. "It's not a replacement product."

I'm a big fan of prepaid anything, mostly because I don't like being surprised by surcharges, taxes and such when the bill arrives. I like to know what I'm paying upfront. I've written before about prepaid cellphones and how to compare them and get the best deal. Paying as you go with a phone makes sense if you don't use a lot of minutes; otherwise an unlimited plan is probably best.

Broadband2Go is a great idea because it takes that prepaid idea and brings it to going mobile on the Internet -- no contracts, no credit checks, no activation fees, no monthly or annual commitments, and no overage charges. It's a smart gift for students who don't want to face a monthly bill.

The only limit is that the amount of megabytes -- 250 MB for $20, for example -- must be used within 30 days. The 100 MB plan for $10 expires in 10 days. Any connection time you have left after the expiration date doesn't roll over to the next quantify of Web access you buy -- something that some prepaid phones allow you to do with rollover minutes.

Minutes don't roll over because then Virgin Mobile would have to continue providing customer service during that extended time, explained Berberian, the product lead for Broadband2Go. If the plans were for three months, then the cost of providing customer service for three months would have had to be factored into the price, he said.

To buy Web time, the company sells what it calls "Top-Up cards" in various denominations. A $20 card will buy 250 MB of Internet access, which equals 12 horus of Web browsing, an hour of watching video or 25,000 e-mails.

They're easy enough to buy, but can't be applied on your account until your usage drops to 25 MB. That's because technical limitations don't allow data to be stacked, Berberian said. But be careful: Loading up a $20 card when you have 20 MB left, for example, will get rid of the 20 MB remaining. Only reload when your time is up, or nearly up.

The unit is limited to usage in Sprint coverage areas, so check your Sprint coverage before buying one. And don't expect to watch much video with one of these plugged into your laptop. I watched about 10 minutes of video, and my remaining megabytes quickly dropped in half.

For now they're only sold at Best Buy, which has an exclusive contract to sell them through the end of the year.

If you're going on a weekend trip or vacation and don't want to pay hotel fees to get wireless Internet access, a Broadband2Go device is the way to go -- if you don't mind paying $150 to buy one.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at
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