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Virgin Mobile Goes Steady With iPhone, Dumps $29 Android Phones

The prepaid Sprint wireless brand aspires to go upscale by selling phones from Apple. and only Apple.

Virgin Mobile Goes Steady With iPhone, Dumps $29 Android Phones
[Photo: Unsplash user Oliver Schwendener]

When you think of Virgin Mobile, chances are the first thing that comes to mind isn’t a high-end mobile carrier. Owned and operated by Sprint–which licenses rights to the Virgin Mobile brand in the U.S.–the company is known for selling low-cost, prepaid Android phones in places like Walmart. But today the company is attempting to turn that perception on its its head by rebooting itself as an iPhone-only carrier that caters to higher-end consumers.

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Part of Virgin’s decision to move to iPhone only is based on its experience thus far with the phone on its network.

“What we found with the iPhone is that customers who buy the iPhone tend to be our best customers,” says Virgin Mobile CEO Dow Draper. “There’s probably multiple reasons for that, but one thing we also know is that people who buy the iPhone call [for support] a lot less, and they tend to be a lot happier. It’s where we wanted to take the brand, a much higher customer-satisfaction space.”

By moving the brand to iPhone only, it will ensure that everyone is using the same operating system, which Draper expects to make solving customer service issues much easier. He likens the move to the way Southwest Airlines’ fleet is standardized on Boeing 737 aircraft.

iPhones New And Old

The iPhones available from Virgin Mobile will include both new models and–coming this fall–discounted “preloved” models that have been turned in by Sprint customers. Customers can purchase an iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s plus, or iPhone SE. And these phones will be available somewhere Virgin Mobile phones have never been before: Apple retail stores. The cheapest new model will be the iPhone SE at $279, and customers will have to pay up front rather than having the option to do so via monthly installments. For a carrier that’s traditionally appealed to people on tight budgets, that’s a gamble. (Virgin will continue to sell low-end Android devices in Walmart, Target, and Best Buy, among other retailers through the end of this year, and will support them for the life of their phones.)

Virgin Mobile is catering to the thrifty-minded with aggressive promotional pricing for wireless service, which will continue to be prepaid. Customers who buy an iPhone and sign up for service, which the company calls joining the “Inner Circle,” will be able to get six months of service, including unlimited talk, text, and data, for $1. For those who sign up before July 31, that promotion extends to a year of service for a buck. After that initial time, you can stick with the carrier for $50 month, or take your unlocked phone elsewhere.

You also get a ton of Virgin perks. Inner Circle customers get a free round-trip companion ticket to the United Kingdom on Virgin Atlantic, a free one-night stay in a Virgin Hotel, discounts on Virgin America and Alaska flights as well as Virgin’s wine club, and 20% off the Virgin Sport Festival of Fitness in San Francisco in October.

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The synergy with other Virgin-branded enterprises is part of a goal to make Virgin Mobile more, well, Virgin-y. “We’re repositioning the brand a bit to bring it more in-line with the other Virgin brands in the U.S.,” Draper says, specifically Virgin Hotels and (the doomed) Virgin America. “It’s not super ritzy, but it’s definitely not a low-income brand position.”

“What we’re trying to do here is come up with something that’s disruptive and gives people really no reason to not come in and try,” says Draper. “We think the partnership with Apple and our connection with the other Virgin brands will really help us move the brand up and appeal to a slightly different customer segment.”

About the author

Emily is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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