If you spend most of your time on your phone checking Facebook, and absolutely nothing else, then Virgin Mobile may have the perfect wireless plan for you. The prepaid carrier will soon begin selling unlimited access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or Pandora for $5 per month each, in addition to the cost of a basic wireless plan.
The offer, which begins Aug. 9, is part of the carrier’s new Virgin Mobile Custom service, which lets customers choose their wireless plans through a kind of à la carte-style menu directly from their phones, based on the services they use most often.
A base plan, which includes 20 minutes of voice and 20 text messages per month, costs just $6.98, which means if all you want to do is check out pictures of what your friends had for dinner on Instagram, then your monthly bill could cost as little as $12, after the $5 Instagram charge.
Unfortunately, because that plan doesn’t include a standard data allotment, you won’t be able to visit any other online service, including your Web browser, unless you’re connected to WiFi.
If you’re looking to get more out of the plan, you can opt for unlimited voice for $18 per month and unlimited texting for $10 per month. Want both? That’ll cost $35 per month. Need some data? Virgin lets you choose from a variety of options ranging from a few hundred megabytes to more than 1 GB of data.
If you do choose to include data as part of your plan, and purchase unlimited access to a social media app or Pandora, then using it won’t count against your overall data allotment. That sounds good for customers, but it also raises some concerns about net neutrality, the principle that traffic to all Web services should be treated and charged the same by Internet providers.
According to Jeremy Gillula, staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Virgin’s offer introduces artificial barriers to competing social media apps.
“It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a competitor to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest comes up with some awesome new features, which, if all data were being treated equally, would attract more users,” Gillula said. “But if I have to worry about paying more to use data for specific services, I might think twice before trying out something new.”
Gillula said Virgin’s offer is similar to T-Mobile’s unlimited music streaming option, which also came under heavy scrutiny by net neutrality advocates. That service lets you stream music from specific services without it counting against your data cap.
For its part, however, Virgin Mobile says it doesn’t see its decision to offer unlimited access to certain apps as a problem, because the carrier isn’t favoring one app over the other. The apps it chose, Virgin Mobile said, are simply the most popular with its customers at the moment.
Beyond its customization, Virgin Mobile Custom also includes some intense parental control options. Mom and Dad can, for example, limit what apps and websites their kids can access and when they can use specific features.
There’s a catch to all of this, though. The Virgin Mobile Custom plans will be available on only three phones at launch: the $78 ZTE Emblem, the $99 LG Pulse, or the $129 LG Unify. What’s more, you’ll be able to pick up those phones only at Walmart. But if you’re looking for a handset that will do the bare essentials — phone calls, text messages, and Facebook pokes — Virgin Mobile’s new offering may be just what you’re looking for.