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Another unlimited mobile broadband plan bites the dust

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Now that Virgin Mobile has decided to start capping its once-unlimited 3G mobile broadband plan, there's only one national U.S. carrier left that's offering true, all-you-can-eat broadband data. For now.

Virgin Mobile's $40-a-month, unlimited 3G broadband plan instantly became one of the best deals in wireless when it was announced last August, especially given that you could use it with a $150 portable MiFi hotspot on a no-contract basis.

But now comes word from Wired's Gadget Lab that starting February 15, Virgin will begin throttling its "Unlimited Broadband2Go" users if they bust over 5GB of data a month.

How much slower will your downloads be? Virgin Mobile isn't saying, but given that mobile 3G data can be poky even under the best of circumstances, don't expect to be streaming any Netflix videos once you get throttled. (Incidentally, Wired reports that Virgin will be keep using the "Unlimited Broadband2Go" name, despite the new 5GB cap.)

So, given that Virgin Mobile's unlimited 3G broadband plan will, as of next month, become quite limited, U.S. road warriors will soon be left with precious few options — well, one option, really — when it comes to true all-you-can-eat mobile broadband data from a national carrier, and even this last remaining option is starting to look shaky.

(Note: Just to be clear, I'm referring to mobile broadband plans for USB modems and mobile hotspots, not smartphone plans — although more and more smartphone data plans are capped, too.)

Nope, we're not talking Verizon Wireless, which caps its 3G mobile broadband plans at 1GB, 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB a month (for $20, $35, $50, and $80, respectively), with its 4G LTE plans capped at 5GB ($50 a month) and 10GB ($80/month).

T-Mobile's best broadband plan is relatively cheap at $40 a month, but you only get 5GB of speedy data — after that, get ready to be throttled.

AT&T has two broadband data plans, both capped: one at 200MB, for $35 a month, the other at 5GB, for $60/month.

And yes, that leaves us with Sprint, which caps its $60-a-month 3G broadband plan at 5GB a month but — but! — offers unlimited 4G data, no caps, no throttling. (Sprint's 3G/4G broadband plan costs the same as its 3G-only plan, $60/month, while its 4G-only plan goes for $50 a month.)

For now.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has been quietly hedging about the carrier's unlimited offerings in recent weeks and months, telling an audience at a tech confab back in September that Sprint will continue to be generous with data "as long as it's reasonable," and adding that "if you run an all-you-can-eat buffet, but you have the New England Patriots come in and the whole team spends a whole day there, I can't afford to do that anymore."

And earlier this month, Hesse told investors that since "[data] usage is increasing at such a rapid rate, something's got to give."

The good news is that Hesse didn't mention anything about data caps. The bad news: Pricing for Sprint's plans could change, and "the tendency will be to move those up," Hesse said (as reported by Wireless Week).

For the moment, at least, Sprint is sticking with its unlimited 4G (and 3G smartphone) plans, although that hasn't stopped some users from complaining that they're being throttled anyway. Indeed, there's a clause in Sprint's user agreement that allows the carrier to "limit, suspend or constrain any heavy, continuous data usage that adversely impacts our network performance or hinders access to our network."

I happen to be a Sprint customer who's pretty happy with his (new) Overdrive 4G personal hotspot, which performed in an impressively speedy manner while I was in Las Vegas covering CES — and I loved that I didn't have to worry about how much data I was using.

I can't help but wonder, however, how long Sprint's all-you-can-eat 4G WiMax party will last.

Related:
Virgin Caps 'Unlimited' MiFi Data Plan at 5GB [Wired]

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

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