Starting next month, Sprint will let you customize a Virgin Mobile cellular plan to your exact specifications. You'll be able to select voice minutes, text messages, and data buckets a-la-carte, as well as add-ons for music and social media apps that let you use them all you want without affecting your "regular" data plan.
The plan, called Virgin Mobile Custom, will launch August 9 exclusively at Walmart, according to a Wednesday statement. Per-line charges start ridiculously low, at just $6.98, but that covers only 20 minutes of talk time and 20 text. From there, you can add on more minutes, more texts, and more data, but you're never locked in. You can adjust up anytime in the month and pay a little more, or even adjust down and get a partial refund for what you didn't use.
So far this sounds like Ting, which also operates on the Sprint network (with free voice roaming on Verizon) and lets you customize plans, charging you based only on how much data, voice, and texts you actually use. But Virgin Mobile Custom goes further with its add-ons.
If you use a lot of social media, for example, you can get a $15 social networking add-on for unlimited data in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Whatever data you use in those apps wouldn't count against the rest of your data plan. If you only use Twitter, you can buy an add-on for just Twitter.
Add-ons will also be available for music streaming and navigation. Everything's controlled through a Virgin Mobile Custom app for Android, which also has parental controls to let you limit how many minutes, texts, and data can be used by each phone in your family plan.
Playing favorites with data
T-Mobile recently announced a similar scheme called Music Freedom, under which streaming music from Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody unRadio, and a handful of other music services wouldn't count against subscribers' high-speed data buckets.
At the Music Freedom announcement event, one journalist asked whether it flew in the face of net neutrality, because it effectively treats streaming data from specific apps and services differently from other data. T-Mobile CEO John Legere was incredulous that anyone would have a problem with free music streaming, regardless of their thoughts on net neutrality, but he did clarify that T-Mobile wasn't actually treating the data differently, only the way they charged you for it--and T-Mobile itself was still paying for the bandwidth.
You could still argue that plans like T-Mobile's Music Freedom and Virgin Mobile Custom could be problematic for people who believe in net neutrality, because they push customers toward large, popular services. If an entrenched photo-sharing service like Instagram doesn't count against your main data plan, while a smaller startup service does, which are you going to pick?
But I think the a-la-carte Virgin Mobile Custom plans will be popular anyway. I, for one, hate paying for things I don't want just because they're part of a package. If I could get cable channels a-la-carte I would, and I love the idea of being able to customize a cell phone plan with lots of data but very few voice minutes, or to pump up my text message allowance temporarily, say for a vacation, and then bump it back down when I'm back at home and no longer texting as much.