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Prepaid Wireless-Data Plans Now Have More to Offer

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Prepaid wireless-phone service looks better than it used to, and that's not just because of the lousy economy.

Once something marketed to customers at the margin of the business -- the young, the credit risks, the infrequent callers -- these options have begun adopting some attributes of subscription services. Instead of paying for an allotment of minutes to use up over time, many prepaid firms also let you pay a fixed sum each month, often including texting and Web access. And yet you can still cancel the deal at will.

The most recent shift in prepaid wireless, however, has nothing to do with voice calls. Two firms now sell no-contract, wireless-data connections for laptop or desktop users in the Washington area.

And while prepaid phones tend to be last-generation models with low-resolution screens and minimal Web access, USB modems generally work alike. So in this case, using prepaid doesn't require giving up features you might get from a subscription service.

One of these options comes from Virgin Mobile (http://virginmobileusa.com), a reseller of Sprint service that Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint is now acquiring.

This Warren, N.J., firm favors intermittent use with data offerings that mirror traditional prepaid calling: Instead of buying minutes, you purchase megabytes. You can put down $10 for 100 MB of activity that will expire 10 days after your first connection, or spend more for allocations that expire in 30 days: $20 for 250 MB, $40 for 600 MB or $60 for 1 gigabyte.

For sustained use, those rates aren't sustainable. They don't even compete with the going rate for subscription service, $60 a month for 5 GB of use (note that overage fees vary widely, from 5 cents per extra megabyte at Sprint and Verizon to 49 cents a meg at AT&T).

But if you just need access over a weekend or a week until you return to your regular connection, these plans can work.

Activating Virgin's USB modem, $149.99 at Best Buy stores, may be tricky. It requires Windows XP or Vista (the company hopes to support Mac activation by year-end), but two Vista laptops didn't accept a modem loaned by Virgin until a second or third try.

Putting a $20 credit on the modem with a Virgin "Top-Up" card involved further trial-and-error at the company's site. After that, though, the modem worked on both PCs and, after adjusting a networking setting, a Mac, too.

Connection speeds, as checked at two popular test sites (http://speedtest.net and http://speakeasy.net/speedtest), averaged 728 kilobits per second for downloads and 331 kbps for uploads. That was enough for Internet video and audio, although Virgin's network added enough latency to make writing this story remotely a halting experience.

Lest you get too tempted to indulge in bandwidth-heavy sites, the modem opens your browser to display how many megabytes you have left every time you connect from a Windows PC. Once you exhaust that, downloads stop and you can only go to a page on Virgin's site to top up your account.

Virgin Mobile's data coverage mirrors that of Sprint (http://sprint.com/coverage): strong around most urban areas but weak in emptier areas of the United States.

Cricket Wireless's prepaid mobile-broadband offering (http://mycricket.com) doesn't match that national reach, but its prices don't approach Virgin's, either. Cricket, a subsidiary of San Diego-based Leap Wireless, covers most of the Washington area's suburbs and little else. Outside of this area, it offers access only in a seemingly random selection of cities -- Philadelphia but not New York, Charlotte but not Atlanta, Spokane but not Seattle, and so on.

Cricket's presentation of itself can seem patchy too. Its site advertises its $40 per month service as "unlimited," then uses finer print to warn that it may throttle back your connection if you use more than 5 gigabytes of data a month.

Area marketing manager Matt Andrews, however, e-mailed that he didn't know of any customers' connections being restricted for exceeding this quota.

Cricket's USB modem sells for $75 online, factoring in a $25 activation fee and $40 credit for the first month of service. (Frequent mail-in rebates can further cut this cost.) But a week ago, its site said broadband service wasn't available when I entered District Zip codes; I had to plug in Baltimore's 21201 to start an order.

Cricket's site also requires that you set up automatic billing when buying the modem, but you can cancel that later by calling customer support. Restarting service usually should not incur a new activation fee, Andrews said.

If you can deal with those issues, Cricket easily beats competitors' rates. A modem loaned by the company also matched or outpaced Virgin Mobile at the same speed-test sites, averaging 700 kbps downloads and 618 kbps uploads, and didn't suffer any setup glitches on Mac and Windows laptops.

Both Cricket and Virgin offer an affordable way to ensure Internet access away from home without adding another monthly bill to the budget. At least for now: WiFi's reach keeps expanding, while many users seem increasingly content with using Web-capable smartphones such as Apple's iPhone in place of computers for light Internet use.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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