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Virgin Begins Helio Integration

Warren, N.J. — Virgin Mobile USA launched its first CDMA 1x EV-DO prepaid-service handset, which is also the company’s first handset to incorporate content services from the Helio-branded postpaid service acquired in August by the company.

The introduction of the $99 Shuttle handset, an S-curve slider made by UTStarcom and marketed by Hauppauge, N.Y.-based PCD, is among several signs of Virgin’s integration of Helio services, including:

  • the launch of a new branding message, “Helio By Virgin Mobile: Plan To Have It All.”
  •  the launch of Virgin-branded prepaid data plans as add-ons to voice plans via the higher speed EV-DO network, on which Helio offers its data services. Virgin had offered a more limited set of content services, such as ringtone downloading and Web browsing, through its CDMA 1x handsets.
  • the launch of a Helio $80 a la carte plan that allows unlimited voice minutes, replacing Helio’s former 1,500-minute limit and mirroring Virgin’s $79.99 Totally Unlimited prepaid voice plan.

The next step in the combined companies’ integration program is an integrated Web site and customer care program, which Virgin chief marketing officer Bob Stohrer said would be completed in the next few months. Total integration will come in 2009, when the Helio brand likely will disappear, although it might be continued to designate mid- and-high level services or products, Stohrer said. Eventually, Virgin wants to make it possible for subscribers to move between plans and services on one handset.

For now, the two brand’s sales operations are still separate, he noted.

Helio has about 170,000 postpaid subscribers, and Virgin has 5 million prepaid customers.

Those prepaid customers now have the option of taking advantage for the first time of the Sprint network’s average 400kbps to 700kbps EV-DO datarates, which Helio uses. The phone will become available exclusively at Best Buy Mobile and on Sept. 28. The phone integrates such Helio features as simpler access to social-networking communities and such mobile Internet sites as Accuweather, ESPN, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Yahoo! via the phone’s menu, whereas they were previously accessible only through a Virgin phone’s Web browser. The phones are also the first Virgin-branded phones with such Helio GPS-based services as the Buddy Beacon friend-finder service and Where, an application that delivers local information, such as the locations of nearby places of interest, local events, restaurants and gas stations with the lowest prices.

Phone features include 1.3-megapixel camera, 2-inch screen, media player that supports streaming and side-loaded music, stereo Bluetooth, SD card slot and S-curve slider design.