Lots of data but fewer options

Virgin’s new shared data plans swap customization for simplicity

When Virgin Mobile launched its Custom plans at Walmart last summer, it created the most flexible prepaid family plans in the U.S. Thanks to technology provided by ItsOn, customers could pick specific buckets of minutes, texts and megabytes and share them with family members. They could even tailor individual phone plans for services like social networking and navigation.

There was only one problem: If anything, the plans were too flexible.

Virgin encountered situations where five different people on a custom family plan would all opt for different minute, text and data buckets and then start swapping their allocations between each other at the end of the month, Virgin director of corporate communications Jayne Wallace told me. It became very difficult and confusing to manage such accounts, she said, so Virgin decided to simplify its structure.

Starting on Saturday, Virgin and [company]Walmart[/company] will begin replacing Virgin Custom phone kits with a new Walmart exclusive program called Data Done Right. The new program definitely makes these service plans easier to manage, though a lot of the granular customization features are sacrificed.

All but the cheapest $35 individual plan come with unlimited voice and SMS, and from there, the pricing varies based on how many lines you purchase and the size of your data bucket. $45 gets you 2.5GB on a single line, while $65 gets you 4GB shared between two lines, $90 8GB over three lines and $115 12GB over four lines. You can add additional gigabytes to a plan for $10 a pop.

Virgin, which is one of [company]Sprint[/company]’s prepaid arms, is also offering a much better selection of phones in the new plans, all of which support Sprint’s LTE service: The [company]HTC[/company] Desire 510 ($99.88), [company]LG[/company] Tribute ($79.88) and LG Volt ($149.88), and the new [company]Samsung[/company] Galaxy Core Prime ($129.88). All of the phones also have mobile hotspot features so you can share that data plan with other devices.

These plans are easier to comprehend, but it’s a shame that the ability to tailor your own plan is left on the wayside. Previously, you could create any manner of plan that reflected how you and each member of your family used their mobile service. Ultimately, though, Virgin’s new rates are pretty cheap, so the price difference between customizing a family plan and opting for a pre-packaged tier isn’t going to be much different. In fact, in many cases, you’ll probably see cost savings. If you’re on a custom plan today, though, Virgin will continue to maintain it, Wallace said.

And Virgin isn’t doing away with customization entirely. It’s keeping some of the add-on features that made the program unique, such as $5 a month for unlimited social media and music stream usage (data from apps like [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Pandora[/company] won’t count against your data allotment). It’s also keeping the ItsOn-designed management app in place, which lets parents fine-tune the usage of every line on their accounts. For instance, they could restrict certain apps from being used on a child’s device or set a “data curfew” for 10 PM, after which a phone would stop surfing the internet.