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Virgin Mobile jumps on flat-rate bandwagon

The new flat-rate services from Virgin Mobile USA are cheaper than offerings from the big four nationwide carriers--and customers don't need to sign a contract.

Virgin Mobile USA will now offer a flat-rate, unlimited calling plan to compete with the big four cell phone operators in the U.S.

Starting July 1, the new prepaid service called "Totally Unlimited" will include free nationwide calling with no roaming charges for $79.99 a month. For $10 more a month, Virgin Mobile users can add unlimited text messaging, IM, e-mail and picture messaging.

Because it's a prepaid service, Virgin's customers won't need to sign a contract. And at $79.99--or $89.99 with the messaging plan--Virgin Mobile's plan is less expensive than most of the other flat-rate offerings on the market.

Verizon Wireless announced in February that it was offering a $99 plan for voice. AT&T and T-Mobile followed with their own plans, which cost $99 and include text messaging. Sprint Nextel then revealed its flat-rate service, which includes unlimited voice, text messaging, e-mail, Web surfing, video, and other premium services for $99 a month.

"'Totally Unlimited' for 79.99 per month is simply a better value than postpaid plans offer," Bob Stohrer, chief marketing officer for Virgin Mobile USA, said in a statement. "It is simply not necessary to sign a two-year contract to get real worth with your wireless plan."

Virgin's unlimited plan comes as the company struggles to grow its customer base. At the end of the last quarter, it reported its net additions fell by 94 percent.

In an effort to boost its customer base and compete more effectively with the bigger players, Virgin Mobile has supposedly been in talks to combine forces with another mobile virtual network operator called Helio. Virgin Mobile and Helio, which is owned by SK telecom and EarthLink, both use the Sprint Nextel network. Helio, which is geared toward tech-savvy hipsters, already offers flat rate plans.

Virgin Mobile, which addresses the cost-conscious youth market, also competes with regional providers like Leap Wireless International and MetroPCS Communications. These providers have been offering unlimited voice services for a long time. But because they are regional operators, they charge roaming fees when customers are outside their coverage areas.