Virgin Mobile drops unlimited pre-paid data plans (sort of)

Photo credit: Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Virgin will begin throttling heavy users of its unlimited mobile broadband plans rather than charging for more data.

Virgin head Richard Branson descends the facade of the Virgin Megastore building on Paris' Champs Elysees on a rope as he promotes the start of his new mobile phone service in France, April 3, 2006.

I thought it was almost too good to be true when Virgin Mobile launched its Broadband2Go plan. The plan, which I've highlighted here before, offers unlimited nationwide data access for $40/month and can be used with a MiFi card or USB EVDO modem. To borrow an often used phrase from Shakespeare – all good things must come to an end.

Virgin recently announced that it was changing the plan to the "unlimited" data model offered by T-Mobile. Users will still receive unlimited service for $40/month, but once they've used 5GB of data, the company will automatically begin throttling down their connection speeds.

Most carriers have begun revising data plans and removing unlimited options. Most are simply giving users a set amount of data at a set price per month. If users go over that data, they're charged more for any additional use (either automatically or by choosing to purchase set amounts of additional data at specified fees). Sprint remains the only major carrier in the U.S. to offer a true unlimited package (though since Sprint is the parent company and mobile network for Virgin's pre-paid service, the company may well change its tune eventually).

Simply throttling heavy data users is controversial and T-Mobile took a lot of heat for the approach earlier this year.

Personally, I've been very happy with Virgin's Boradband2Go service. I have gone over 5GB in a month. I would much rather pay for additional data (even another $40) at the good speeds that Virgin delivers. Having my bandwidth throttled would be a big problem while on the road (be it for personal or business travel). In fact, the change may very well make me consider signing up with a contract and a different provider (which would also grant me the choice of Sprint's WiMax or Verizon's LTE service).

That could end up being a problem for Virgin. Unlike T-Mobile, Virgin users are month-to-month and there's nothing stopping us from jumping ship at any given time as a result of this change (aside from getting saddled with a contract from another carrier). Rather than enjoying additional profits from heavy data users, Virgin seems content to lose users rather than lose the "unlimited" moniker.

Of course, since Virgin is contract-free, there's another option for heavy data users: buy a second MiFi or EVDO device. There's an up front cost, of course, but if you hit 5GB on one device (one account), just switch over to the other – effectively buying an additional 5GB for $40. Not ideal, but it would work. What would be a better solution was for Virgin to wake up and realize the needs of some of its customers and offer a choice between an "unlimited" plan and a per-GB plan (other than the paltry 10 day/100MB option that exists).

What do you think? Is data throttling a better or worse option than simply buying more data server? Would this prevent you from choosing Virgin's Broadband2Go?

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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