Sprint's Custom Prepaid Plans Draw Net Neutrality Fire

Sprint's Virgin Mobile Custom plan offers optional social network access that doesn't count against data caps — but critics are crying foul.

Sprint's Custom Prepaid Plans Draw Net Neutrality Fire
Virgin Mobile

Sprint plans to start offering a highly customizable service plan on its Virgin Mobile prepaid network — but the move is drawing its fair share of criticism.

Users will be able to closely customize all the traditional aspects of a phone plan, including talk time, text message limits and data caps.

But it's also offering pay-per-network access to social networks that won't count against data caps.

That's a $5 monthly fee for access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest — pick one. Paying $20 a month unlocks unlimited use of all four simultaneously, and customers can tack on $5 more a month for unlimited streaming from one music app. (Via Sprint)

If they have a data plan — and as long as they haven't hit its cap — Virgin Custom users can still access whatever they want whenever they want. So it's not a worst-case failure of Net neutrality, but industry watchers are worrying we might be able to see it from here.

Droid Life explains: "Instead of allowing data to flow unimpeded, Virgin Mobile Custom very clearly discriminates against a huge number of apps, ultimately relegating them to more restrictive data plans."

Opt-in makes it a little better, but Gizmodo argues it still goes against "the fundamental idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally."

Graphics like this theoretical tiered payment scheme posted by Reddit user quink have made the rounds for years, but Sprint appears to be pushing the depressing thought exercise a little closer to reality.

And although Sprint's plan is perhaps the most blatant example of chopping up the Internet into little a la carte bits, it's not exactly alone.

T-Mobile is raising neutrality concerns of its own with Music Freedom, which gives users unfettered access to a select group of streaming services.

And AT&T offers sponsored data, meaning clients pay AT&T for the data costs incurred by their software and traffic. It's not dinging end consumers, but it's tiered pricing all the same.

For what it's worth, says The Wall Street Journal"Sprint isn't being paid by any of the apps, but [Sprint Prepaid President Dow] Draper didn't rule it out in the future. 'It's definitely possible,' he said. 'But we have not gone down that path yet.'"

And maybe more to the point, the FCC's 2010 open Internet rules don't restrict wireless providers as much as they do terrestrial ISPs — so Virgin Mobile Custom is perfectly legal.

Sprint says Virgin Mobile Custom will be available starting Aug. 9, exclusively at Wal-Mart.