Prepaid reaches the high, low ends

Prepaid wireless users are no longer relegated to out-of-date flip phones or the bricks that once symbolized the contract-free market. More and more sophisticated handsets are being introduced by carriers and being embraced by younger text- and Web-oriented wireless customers, according to New Millennium Research (NMRC).

In a study put out today, NMRC executive director Allen Hepner said the arrival of more advanced handsets should help prepaid continue the momentum it’s picked up in the past year. The report highlighted a few of the advanced devices brought to market, most of which came from Samsung: Wal-Mart’s exclusive Straight Talk brand carries the Samsung Finesse touch-screen phone and Samsung R451C with mobile Web and a Qwerty keyboard. Verizon carriers the Samsung Intensity Qwerty phone. T-Mobile and Boost Mobile have been slower to bring their handsets up to speed, NMRC said, but both offer the Samsung t349 sporting half a qwerty keypad. Boost also offers the i465 with the full keypad. While these phones are more advanced than the most basic calling and texting devices, only MetroPCS and T-Mobile offer devices that can be classified as smartphones.

The NMRC forecast back in March that millions of Americans would shift to lower cost prepaid plans to save my money during the current recession – a prediction that clearly has come to fruition over the past year. There is still, however, a subset of Americans that can’t afford wireless plans of any sort. In a separate announcement today addressing this audience, Sprint-owned Virgin Mobile launched a new government-funded wireless service for more than 1.5 million lower-income households in New York.

The Assurance Wireless service, in conjunction with non-profit organization HeartShare Human Services, includes a free Kyocera Jax handset and 200 minutes of free wireless and long-distance calling within the US every month. The idea is that those that qualify for income-based assistance programs can use the cell phone service for essential functions like obtaining employment, scheduling medical appointments or contacting their children’s schools. Beyond the 200 minutes, funded by the Universal Service Fund, customers can choose to pay for additional 20-cent per minute domestic calling, international calling, 15-cent text and data services. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile also participate in this project, LifeLine, which began in 1997 after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but they only offer discounted, not free, service.

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