Virgin Mobile USA—a division of Sprint which focuses on pre-paid, no-contract wireless service—is introducing a new brand-within-the-brand called Virgin Mobile Custom. Offered in collaboration with Walmart and being rolled out at around half of the retailer's stores, it's aimed at families. And instead of steering them toward paying big bucks for unlimited service, it allows them to specify a custom plan for each family member: a specific number of voice minutes, a certain number of text messages...even access that's restricted to a particular app or game.
If that sounds familiar, it might be because Virgin Mobile Custom is essentially the same thing as Zact, a build-your-own-plan wireless provider which launched in May of 2013. Zact piggybacked on Sprint's network and was offered by ItsOn, the startup which created the platform which makes Virgin Mobile Custom's features possible. The idea all along was that ItsOn would work with other companies to offer its service under a variety of brands; now current Zact customers will be asked to transition to Virgin Mobile Custom.
Pricing for Virgin Mobile Custom starts at a rock-bottom $7 a month per line for the bare necessities: 20 voice minutes and 20 text messages. From there, you can upgrade all the way up to unlimited voice and texting for $35 a month. But you can also buy just the number of voice minutes or texts you think you'll need. If you underestimate, you can upgrade your plan on the fly; if it turns out that you bought more than you needed, you'll get a refund.
The service also lets you pay for unlimited access to a given app for you or another member of your family. For example, $5 a month gets you unlimited Facebook, or all-you-can-stream listening to a music service such as Spotify or Pandora. And parents can set up restrictions for kids' phones, such as making games off-limits during school hours.
As with Zact, the big gotcha with Virgin Mobile Custom is the choice of devices, or lack thereof. Only phones customized to work with ItsOn's platform work with the service. For now, that includes only three models, all of them basic smartphones which target cost-conscious consumers rather than gadget nerds: the 3G ZTE Emblem ($80) and LG Pulse ($100), and the 4G LG Unify ($130).
There is one loophole. Parents can opt for standard Virgin Mobile pre-paid service for themselves, which gets them access to a much wider range of Android phones. A downloadable app will still let them manage their kids' Virgin Mobile Custom phones.
Virgin Mobile says that more phones are on the way. If high-end, high-profile Android models such as Samsung's Galaxy S5, HTC's One M8, or LG's G3 ever join the mix they'd sell for far higher prices, since Virgin doesn't subsidize its handsets. But they would also make Virgin Mobile Custom attractive to a whole new group of potential customers. (I assume that the odds of Apple ever building a compatible iPhone are infinitesimal, although it would be nifty if I were wrong.)
As Zact, ItsOn's service was one of several startup alternative wireless carriers which aimed to help folks avoid paying for more service than they need; others include Ting and Republic Wireless. The idea is conceptually cool in any of its forms, but hasn't taken off in a big way so far. As Virgin Mobile Custom, it has the backing of Sprint, the nation's third largest wireless company; maybe that will give it the marketing oomph it needs to reach a broader, more mainstream audience.