Virgin offers pay-as-you-go wireless USB card

The new service might attract infrequent users who find subscriptions too expensive

A new mobile broadband offering from Virgin Mobile USA could appeal to the occasional business traveler as well as mobile consumers.

Broadband2Go, which runs on Sprint's 3G network, will let users pay for laptop Internet connectivity as they use it, rather than based on a monthly subscription. The USB modem, made by Novatel and the size of a common small USB storage drive, will run for US$150. Best Buy will sell the modem starting later this month.

Armed with the modem, users buy data usage in $10, $20, $40 or $60 increments. But there's a catch: Customers must use the data within a relatively short period of time. For $20, users get 250MB of data that expires after 30 days. The cheapest payment costs $10 for 100MB, but it expires in 10 days. For $60, users get 1GB that they must use in 30 days.

For infrequent mobile data users, the offering could still make sense. By comparison, Sprint's own mobile data services cost $60 per month and include 5GB of data.

One of the biggest barriers to metered data services historically has been the difficulty most people have determining how much data each online activity consumes. Virgin attempts to address that issue with a real-time usage meter that customers can check to find out how many megabytes they have left.

Virgin has also posted a chart with estimates for common activities, although such estimates aren't typically reliable due to the many variables with online use. For 100MB, Virgin says users will get on average five hours of Web browsing, 25 minutes of video or 10,000 e-mails without attachments.

The modem works on computers running Windows, Mac and Linux and fits into a Type-A USB port. It has a microSD slot so users can insert a storage card for transporting files.

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