Last year, Virgin Mobile made the iPhone (4 AND 4S?) accessible to a whole new class of budget-conscious user by offering the device on a rock-bottom $30-a-month prepaid plan. Next Friday, the Sprint-owned(s s) no-contract carrier will extend that plan to the iPhone 5, bringing LTE access along for the ride.
Virgin is billing the service as an unlimited data and texting plan with 300 voice minutes. There are a few caveats though. Unlimited means 2.5 GB of CDMA or LTE data each month, after which your speeds are throttled down. Also the $30 plan requires you to sign up for Virgin’s Auto Pay service, which automatically charges your monthly bill to a credit card, debit card or PayPal(s ebay) account.
Unlike other carriers, which try to differentiate their plans based on the size of your data bucket, Virgin differentiates via voice. If you want more than 300 voice minutes, you’ll have to pay significant premiums: $10 more for 1200 minutes and $20 more for unlimited talk . But if you don’t talk on the phone much, this is one of the cheapest plans in the business. Virgin is even sweetening the pot by offering a $100 discount off the unsubsidized cost of the iPhone 5 — $550 may still seem high to a budget buyers, but it’s better than $650 or more.
Most of the budget smartphone plans level out at around $45 a month. That’s what Straight Talk(s amex) charges for its iPhone 5 plan at Walmart(s wmt). Of the nationwide carriers, T-Mobile offers the cheapest plan for $50 a month, including unlimited talk and text, but only 500 MB of data.
It’s no coincidence we’re starting a bunch of iPhone 5 deals right about now. Best Buy(s bby) today kicked off a trade-in program for iPhone 4 or 4S models, which gives customers a $150 discount on a new iPhone 5. Apple(s aapl) is set to launch its newest iPhone this fall (whether it’s named the 5S, 6, or something else), so it’s maximizing sales of soon-to-be-previous-generation smartphones while it can.