Don't call it a comeback! Helio returns with really slow unlimited data plan

Helio, which flamed out five years ago, is taking on the US wireless market with a new parent company and simple $29-a-month plan.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile | 5G | Big Tech | Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
2 min read

Now for an unlikely trip down memory lane.

Helio, the wireless brand that flamed out years ago, makes an unlikely comeback. Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

Helio, a mobile brand that exploded into the scene in 2006, only to fizzle out just a few years later, is back as a new wireless reseller with a new backer and a new offering: a $29-a-month plan that features unlimited voice calls, text messages and slow data. Helio's service, which quietly launched last week, will ride on Sprint's network, with access to Verizon Wireless roaming.

Helio was one of the poster children of the age of the wireless reseller, or mobile virtual network operator. It was the notion that any brand or company could jump into the mobile business buying, leasing and reselling wireless service from the major carriers, an idea that had rapper Puff Daddy proclaiming that he was an MVNO in 2005 (he never actually launched a service ). Helio attempted to set itself apart through unique handsets, a hipper image and, eventually, as a haven for Korean consumers in the US.

But Helio, like Disney and ESPN, which also launched their own branded wireless services, struggled to convince consumers that it had more to offer than a Verizon or Sprint. After launching in 2006, Helio was sold to Virgin Mobile just two years later, with Virgin shutting down the brand and service in 2010.

Korean telco UBI Telecom revived Helio this time around. It's unclear, however, whether the brand is strong enough to justify a comeback. Helio never really made a dent in the market, and had fewer than 100,000 customers when it went offline. In comparison, Sprint boasted 57.1 million customers in the last quarter.

Helio's website touts a "worry-free" $29 plan that includes taxes and fees. While the plan, which is far lower than Sprint's own unlimited data, voice and text message plan of $60 a month, has significant limitations.

The maximum connection speed on Helio is 128 kilobits a second, essentially equivalent to a dial-up modem connection. In comparison, Verizon Wireless promises speeds of around 5 to 12 megabits per second, or at least 40 times faster.

Helio does offer a free month's service for customers to test out.

Helio allows customers to bring their own smartphones to the service, but regardless of their capabilities, the speeds will be capped. Helio also lists a number of older Samsung smartphones available for sale on the website. It labels several of them as "hot deals," listing their original retail price -- from two years ago -- but crossing it out in favor of the cheaper "deal," which are the equivalent of prices you would find elsewhere for the same device.

A Sprint spokesman declined to comment on Helio's service.