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Virgin Mobile smartphone plan: Is it a good deal?

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(Read caption) Virgin Mobile store manager Jaf Autry displays a Virgin Mobile prepaid smartphone at the Culver City Connections in Culver City, Calif., June 7, 2012. Virgin Mobile is giving customers the chance to tailor their smartphone plans, but on limited devices from Walmart, on Aug. 9.

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Virgin Mobile's latest prepaid plan could radicalize the way we look at mobile carriers. Debuting on August 9, Virgin Mobile Custom gives subscribers the unprecedented ability to tailor their plans down to their precise needs. Want a smartphone plan with talk, text, and unlimited Facebook access? That'll be $12/month. Want access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest? That'll be $22/month. Sound tempting? There's a catch.

For starters, the plan will be exclusively available at Walmart stores only. In addition, the plan will initially support only three mid-range Android smartphones: the ZTE Emblem, LG Pulse, and the LG Unify. Prices for the plans will vary based on your needs, but rates will start at $6.98 per line, per month with a 5-line maximum on family plans. What's unique about this approach is the amount of control Virgin Mobile, a Sprint subsidiary, is giving its customers.

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The base plan includes 20 texts and 20 voice minutes for $6.98/month. An unlimited talk and text plan starts at $35/month. Data is sold separately and starts at $1.40/month for 20MB or $18.50/month for 1GB.

Here's where it gets interesting: Virgin will also offer special "add-ons" that give you unlimited access to Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or Instagram for an extra $5/month. When added to your plan, data used on these apps won't count against your monthly data allotment. Want unlimited access to all four? If you're on the base plan, that'll raise the total price to $22/month. For an additional $5/month, you can also get unlimited music streaming from a selection of pre-approved music apps.

Plans can be adjusted any time of the month, either via the smartphone itself or through the primary user's device. So if mid-way through the month you've hit your texting capacity, you can easily add more on the fly.

If parts of Virgin's strategy remind you of T-Mobile's Music Freedom plans, it's because they're somewhat related. Whereas T-Mobile's Music Freedom plan highlights music apps, Virgin Mobile's Custom plan focuses on today's most popular social networking apps such as Facebook and Twitter.

If the thought of paying for specific app access makes you queasy, keep in mind that the companies are not paying Virgin/Sprint for this access. Moreover, the FCC doesn't regulate Net neutrality on wireless networks. So if these strategies work, it's likely we'll see more of them.

Louis Ramirez is a senior features writer for DealNews, where this article first appeared: http://dealnews.com/features/Virgin-Mobiles-New-Smartphone-Plan-Offers-La-Carte-Access-with-a-Catch/1114564.html