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Sprint's Virgin prepaid service to offer shared data plans at Walmart

The shared data plan, initially available to only four smartphones in Virgin's lineup, will allow individuals to customize on the fly how much data each member users.

The concept of a family plan with a shared pool of data has been a hit for the big-name wireless carriers. Sprint is banking it will get the same kind of attention when it arrives in the prepaid world courtesy of its Virgin Mobile arm.

The LG Tribute will be one of the phones that work with Virgin's new shared data plan. Sarah Tew/CNET

Virgin said Friday it would begin offering a prepaid data share plan through retail partner Walmart starting tomorrow. The options include a two-line, 4 gigabyte plan for $65 a month; a three-line, 8 GB plan for $90; and a four-line, 12 GB plan for $115. After the data is used up, customers are throttled back to dial-up-like 2G speeds.

The program is just the latest move by the wireless carriers, which are getting increasingly aggressive in luring new customers to their prepaid business, seen as one of the last bastions of growth in the industry. The first quarter is a particularly critical period because the raft of early tax returns drives people to purchase more prepaid wireless services.

T-Mobile on Thursday unveiled a new set of prepaid program, dubbed ," that offers more data at the same price. The company has also leaned on its MetroPCS arm for prepaid growth, while AT&T has likewise poured money into marketing its Cricket prepaid business.

Virgin, along with sister prepaid player Boost Mobile, are key ingredients to Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure's plan to bring growth back to the company. Virgin is the first prepaid player to offer a shared data plan, a distinction it hopes consumers will notice.

"We feel there's an opportunity to really disrupt the family plan space by bringing shared data to the market," said Angela Rittgers, vice president of prepaid marketing at Sprint.

Virgin believes it can further stand out from the crowd with the option to customize how much data each member gets on the fly. Sprint acquired the capability from startup ItsOn, and launched Virgin Custom last year, enabling customers to use a mobile app to tweak how many voice minutes or text messages they needed on their plan -- at any time.

Virgin is taking that capability and applying it to the shared data plan. Using an app, members of the shared plan can divvy up the data, or allot a portion of the month's data allowance to an individual. The changes can be made on the fly and can be tweaked as often as desired. A disciplinarian-prone parent, for example, could dole out small, daily buckets of data to their children, depending on how well they behaved.

The customization option requires special software, so only four smartphones will be able to use this plan at the launch. They are the $100 HTC Desire 510 , $80 LG Tribute , $150 LG Volt and $130 Samsung Galaxy Core Prime, which will serve as the launch device for the shared plan.

Customers can buy additional data starting at $10 a month for an additional 1 GB. Like T-Mobile, Sprint won't count social media and streaming music apps against the its data cap, allowing the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Pandora to run at full speed without limits.

Walmart is an epicenter for wireless prepaid sales. Walmart

Sprint and Walmart plan to tout the shared data option in a joint marketing push, while sales staff at the store will be able to go into detail about the customization capabilities, Rittgers said.

That Virgin is making the shared plan an exclusive offer for Walmart customers speaks to the influence that the retail giant has in the prepaid business.

"Walmart is the largest single distribution point for the prepaid space," Rittgers said. "Making sure we're winning in Walmart is critical to the business."

In addition to the family plans, Virgin will also offer new single-line plans at Walmart. They start with a $35-a-month plan for 300 minutes of voice minutes, unlimited text messages and 2.5 GB of high-speed data, similar to an option it offers on its own website. It will also introduce a $45 plan with unlimited voice, text messages and 2.5 GB of high-speed data, better than the 1 GB of data it offers on its own site.

As with its data share plans, once an individual goes over the limit, the phone is throttled back to a 2G connection.

When looking at the competition, Rittgers said she isn't concerned.

"When I look at the [rival] offers, there's nothing extremely compelling that has us concerned," she said, noting that one of her $35 plans is $5 lower than T-Mobile's cheapest prepaid data plan.