Virgin Mobile offers fully customizable prepaid plans

Virgin Mobile Custom, exclusively available at Walmart, lets users tweak on the fly how much data and how many voice minutes and text messages they want to use.

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Roger Cheng
3 min read

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile's new prepaid program will give its customers some serious options.

The prepaid arm, a unit of Sprint, unveiled Virgin Mobile Custom on Wednesday, a new offering that allows customers to control on a granular level how many minutes and text messages and how much data they want on their plan -- settings that can each be adjusted on the fly directly on the smartphone. The service will launch August 9 through an exclusive deal with Walmart.

The service is powered by ItsOn, a startup that launched the Zact wireless service Sprint shuttered earlier this month after the two struck a multi-year licensing agreement. ItsOn's Smart Service Virtual Network Technology is what enables the real-time tinkering of plans available on Virgin Mobile Custom.

As Sprint continues to bleed customers, particularly from its core business, it's increasingly looking to its prepaid units to pick up the slack. The carrier has long bet big on prepaid as a growth driver, running both Virgin and Boost Mobile, as well as the low-income cell-phone service Assurance Wireless. But the company faces intensifying competition from T-Mobile's MetroPCS getting more aggressive and AT&T's Cricket Wireless relaunching as a national prepaid service.

Sprint hopes Virgin Mobile Custom, which brings unprecedented customer control over plans, stands out from the pack.

"We're excited to see how it goes," said Dow Draper, president of Sprint's prepaid business.

Virgin Mobile Custom also represents the first time Sprint is offering a family plan, with up to five people able to share a common bucket of minutes, text messages, and data.

On a more basic level, Walmart and Virgin will be pitching the idea of a family of four people sharing 3,000 minutes, 3,000 text messages, and 4GB of data for $26.23 a line, or $104.92. But customers can also lower the amount of text messages or voice minutes and increase the data allotment. If the total price of the new plan is lower than the current one, customers get the difference as a credit toward next month's bill. If it goes higher, customers will be charged directly from the phone through a linked credit card.

Customers can also go to Walmart to adjust their plans.

Individuals and families can adjust their plans, which start as low as $3 for 250 voice minutes, $4.50 for 500 text messages, and $8 for 250MB of data, to meet their needs. Draper said the trials have shown that there is often a lot of tinkering for the first few months, and then activity drops off as customers find the optimal combination of offerings.

There's an option for unlimited minutes at $18 per line, and unlimited text messages at $10 per line (unlimited plans can't be shared), but there is no option for unlimited data, which largely remains a core Sprint feature.

One user, presumably a parent, can also set the amount of data, minutes, and text messages a member of the family is allowed to access, and can even restrict apps based on time of day (Facebook, for instance, would be shut down during school hours). Sprint will offer a control app for any iOS or Android phone, allowing customers on another carrier to manage a Virgin account. For instance, a father on Verizon Wireless may have several children on the lower cost Virgin plans. That app won't be available until Sept. 1.

Virgin is also selling add-ons for Unlimited Facebook or Unlimited Music for $5 each for those conscious of heavy data use in a particular way.

These capabilities are the result of the Marc Andreessen-backed ItsOn, which drew Sprint's interest early, even if the carrier wasn't sure about how ItsOn would fit into its array of offerings.

"It looked really neat, but we didn't jump on it immediately," Draper said.

But as Draper was looking at different options and talking to vendor partners and in particular, Walmart, he realized ItsOn would be a good fit. Appropriately, Draper said he's trying to push Virgin's brand as the one that represents the most choice.

The service still has a trial feel to it, relegated to price-sensitive consumers. Only three smartphones will work on Virgin Mobile Custom: the $$79.88 ZTE Emblem, $99.88 LG Pulse, and $129.88 LG Unify. Draper said he plans to expand the lineup to include more phones.