Sunday, November 21, 2010

Finally, an affordable and reasonable mobile data plan!

I am truly excited about a product and data plan that Virgin Mobile and Walmart just came out with. The two-year commitments that cell phone carriers require are ripoffs. When I had a Blackberry plan with AT&T, there were months when I was not traveling at all, and I did not use or need my Blackberry at all. AT&T would not let me suspend the service during those periods of non-use. My mother has an iPhone, and she is paying something like $90 per month for it. Even now, AT&T will not let her suspend the service – this time, she is headed out of the country and will not use the iPhone in the slightest because it gets so expensive to use internationally. Paying $180 for something you will not use is pretty unreasonable.

In this economy, more folks agree with me. There are voice services out there that make sense for thrifty folks like me – I have been recommending Net10. With Net10 phones, I’ve bought a refurbished LG300 phone that works perfectly well with voice and receiving texts. I pay $30 for 600 minutes of voice calls that last two months. Since I (and from what I hear, the younger generation) don’t make many voice calls, those minutes last me the full two months, and then they roll over. I pay an equivalent of $15 per month for my cell phone that gives me the voice capability that I need.

And here’s a tip that I unearthed on a cell phone forum. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it works enough to be useful when I am traveling: you can forward emails to your Net10 phone (and likely any other phone that receives text messages) by using your phone’ email address! My Net10 phone uses the T-Mobile network, and its email address is in the form “” where “dddxxxyyyy” is my cell phone number in the form of area code and local digits. When I leave for a trip, I have Gmail forward my emails to my cell phone, and it works well enough. For my particular cell phone, my emails are truncated, but I am able to glean enough to know if the message is urgent or not. I can then call the person or whip out my laptop to send an email – as long as I am in a wifi zone, which brings me to my new discovery.

Since giving up my Blackberry, I have been waiting for a carrier to come out with a data plan that made sense. What makes sense? I want a data plan that is month-to-month, does not require a longterm commitment that penalizes you if you don’t want the plan, and does not cost a huge amount of money. I want a plan that is priced competitively, gives me enough data usage so I can get my emails and browse my websites when traveling, and works in the places that I travel to, within reason. Most of my business requires emails that are longer than can be reasonably typed on a Blackberry. And I admit that I am wordy.

As far as data plan usage, I can live with a monthly cap of 250Mb. That’s probably the lowest cap per month that would work for me, and would probably get me through a month of traveling and accessing emails and web pages. It’s a bit low, however, and I travel less than the typical businessman (but I consider myself an average guy and not a power user guy in a business suit, who has an unlimited budget anyway).

With the iPad, Steve Jobs seemed to have forced AT&T to offer a reasonable data plan. I have been on the verge of buying an iPad solely for the reasonably priced and month-to-month, no commitment, data plans. Kudos to Apple and Steve Jobs (and perhaps AT&T) for offering such a reasonable data plan for the iphone. However, the cost of the iPad (do I really need yet another device when I already have a netbook, a laptop, and a couple of desktop machines) has made me hold off. And I’ve also been holding off and waiting for E-Trade to send my $500 Apple Gift Card, which is a few weeks overdue! After my recent convention show, however, where I was stranded at the airport and needed web access (shame on SFO for not having free wifi!) to book rental cars and hotels, I was ready to buy an iPad immediately for the 3G access.

T-Mobile used to have a prepaid, 200Mb per month plan with no commitment for $24.99 per month. They have recently revamped their website to solve the problem that I describe below; they offer $30 and $50 monthly prepaid plans now for 300Mb or 1Gb of data respectively. Congrats to T-Mobile for finally getting their act together.

The problem is that if you try to buy this plan, the T-Mobile website forces you to buy a USB data modem also, at $150 to $200. OK, let’s say I buy the modem. Let’s say that I use the plan for two months and then don’t need the data plan for a few months. I cancel the plan. I try to start it up again. Well, if you try to start it up again using T- Mobile’s website, then you will be forced to buy another modem and pay another activation fee! And if you call T-Mobile’s ridiculously awful customer service, they know nothing about this prepaid plan and don’t even have the web resources to look it up! If you go to the store, they will tell you that T-Mobile does not have such a prepaid plan and will try to sell you the data plan that has a two-year commitment! I tried all the above. I even let myself get talked into trying out a data modem on a two-year plan by a store representative who promised me that if I cancelled within 30 days, I would not be charged a dime. It turns out he lied to me, and T-Mobile charged me over $60 for activation fees and usage fees even when I returned the items within 30 days. Yes, I am arguing wth T-Mobile, but of course their awful customer service is suspiciously and sufficiently awful to never credit me the amount promised. I am talking HOURS on the phone.

So forget T-Mobile and its treacherous, two-faced, deceitful offerings. Let’s move on (and by the way, don’t let the cell phone agent at the Costco booth tell you that there will be no charge whatsoever to try out the ridiculously expensive Verizon data plan for less than a month. Verizon will renege, you will discover that the guy in the Costco booth is just some guy that has no training and doesn’t know all the rules of all the plans for all the carriers that he purportedly represents , and you will be billed by Verizon for $100 just for trying out their modem for a few days).

This takes me to my recent trip to Las Vegas for a convention and being stranded at the airport. I have had my eye on a Virgin Mobile data plan, to use it until E-Trade sent me my Apple Gift Card. It cost $40 for month of unlimited service (or $10 for 10 days and something like 100 Mb of data), and it uses the Sprint network. This was still a bit pricey for me, considering the iPad’s $15 per month plan – but I was interested in it. After being stranded at the airport and realizing that I needed internet access while traveling NOW – I rushed over to Walmart after finally getting home and looked for the item: a Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go USB modem. I noticed that Virgin Mobile offered a special $20 per month (for 1Gb), no commmitment plan for those customers who purchased their modems at Walmart. This plan is perfect! Hip hip hooray for Walmart and Virgin Mobile for offering such a reasonable and usable plan. I am happily using this modem now to post this blog to my site.

Setting up the Virgin Mobile USB modem (which is a Novatel U760 modem) is not always simple and easy. I tried installing and uninstalling the Broadband2Go software on my MacBook Pro several times to no avail. I finally fired up VMWare and Windows XP on my laptop and activated the modem using the Windows environment. I was then able to go to the Virgin Mobile website and get my MDM account number, MSID number, and choose my Account PIN. Armed with that information, and still on the Windows environment, I paid for a month’s access on the Virgin Mobile website. Summary: when activating and starting up the Virgin Mobile USB modem, I highly recommend using a Windows XP machine (or emulator) to activate the modem.

Now that my modem was activated, I spent another hour trying to get the Broadband2Go software to work on my Mac using OS X. I finally decided not to use the Broadband2Go software and instead, went into Network Preferences. Here’s a rough description along with two screen grabs:

Go to Network Preferences.
Select the Virgin Mobile modem.
Click the Advanced button.
Under the Advanced page, change the modem from a phone modem to “Novatel Wireless and CDMA.”
You’ll then see green connected and sent/received bars.
When you want to connect to the internet, simply hit the Connect button, and you should be good to go.
Don’t bother using the Broadband2Go software in the Mac environment. It repeatedly asked for my system password but never connected me. Do run the Mac installer, however, to install the modem drivers. Do use the software in a Windows environment as it seems to work just fine.

I am a happy camper! Thanks, Walmart and Virgin. No thanks to you at all, Costco, T-Mobile, and Verizon! I’ll write more about my experience with Costco’s kiosk that markets cell phones. In short, why are we Costco customers, who pay for a good premium shopping experience, having to tolerate Costco’s phone kiosks, who do not offer Costco customers the best deals, do not offer prepaid services, do not offer agents that are knowledgeable, and do not offer the same service and return policies as Costco?


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