Who’s the ding-dong now, Verizon? My Circle stays.

In a message to employees, Verizon Wireless eased the mind of Alltel subscribers, announcing it will let them keep their My Circle calling plans and will even extend the social-networking inspired plans to its subscriber base. (And they won’t get rid of the fun-loving Chad yet either, although I imagine the red-shirted Verizon dweeb might have to go.)

Starting Sunday, under Verizon’s “new” Friends & Family calling plan, subscribers with single-line plans of $60 can pick five phone numbers to call for free without depleting their plan’s minutes. Customers subscribing to family plans starting at $90 for two lines will get 10 free numbers. The Friends & Family name comes from a long-distance calling plan instituted by MCI, acquired by Verizon in 2005.

When Alltel introduced the My Circle plans in 2006, six months before T-Mobile followed up with ‘MyFaves,’ it wasn’t the first carrier to offer free calling plans, but it took it further than any existing family-calling plan by letting subscribers choose 10 phone numbers anywhere in the US, regardless of carrier, to call for free 24/7. Alltel took the calling plan motif away from a family-centric service to a truly socially networked experience, a trend carriers are looking to emulate in most all new services today.

The plans aren’t as flexible as Alltel’s offering was as they are allocated to only two calling plans, and family members have to agree on 10 shared numbers, which could mean the boyfriend and grandparents have to battle it out for inclusion. It also isn’t clear if Verizon subs will get access to unlimited text, video and picture messaging to anyone in their circle, as Alltel began offering last summer. This time last year, Alltel also expanded circles to include 20 contacts. Still, Alltel championed the role of the carrier as a consumer advocate, and it was a smart move from Verizon to honor that.

With its $28 billion acquisition of Alltel, closed on January 9, Verizon beat out AT&T to become the largest U.S. wireless operator. The combined companies now claim 80 million subs, compared to AT&T’s 77 million as of the fourth quarter. VZW plans to convert Alltel customers to its own billion within two to three months and fully convert the brand over to Verizon within six months.

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