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Sprint joins New Year's scramble for attracting mobile customers with "Framily"

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While T-Mobile and AT&T engage in an all-out war for customers, each trying to outdo the other to lure away customers, Sprint has killed their short-lived One Up option and introduced the new Framily Plan with little fanfare.

That's not a typo - it's "Framily," as in friends and family. The whole concept may seem rather convoluted at first, but it actually takes advantage of a strategy that groups of people, often relatives who don't live together, commonly use already to save money on their mobile bills.

Mobile carriers expect that everyone on an account live at the same address. However, parents often keep grown children on their cell phone accounts long after the kids have left the nest. Sometimes, families buy Grandma or Grandpa a new smart phone and keep it on the family's account. Also, non-custodial parents buy phones on their accounts for teenagers, and some people even stretch things a bit further to include adding a cousin, girlfriend, boyfriend or roommate.

While a mobile carrier probably won't visit your house to make sure everyone on your bill actually lives with you, the strategy holds significant risks for the account holder. That person is responsible for the bill, including any overage charges for exceeding the monthly allotments for voice, texts or data, along with accidental add-on charges or potentially enormous fees for using a mobile phone outside of the U.S. without a global plan.

This means that if you have Uncle Harry on your plan and he leaves his phone turned on during a trip to Canada, you could be responsible for hundreds or thousands of dollars in international usage charges.

Sprint's new Framily Plan lets groups of up to 10 people, related or not, band together for the purposes of pricing, though everyone gets unlimited talk and text, plus their own 1 GB bucket of data and - most importantly - their own bills, for which they are individually liable. You can, however, have a group of three people on one bill, one person on another bill, two people on another, and so on, all using the same Framily Plan. The more people, the merrier, since the $25 monthly price per line depends on having at least seven people on the Framily account.

Anybody on the account can upgrade to 3 GB of data for an extra $10 a month or unlimited data with annual upgrades for $20 monthly. Existing customers who are upgrade eligible can switch to a Framily Plan, as can those on a One Up plan, with some caveats.

While the Framily Plan could save money for some groups of friends and relatives, some may want to look instead at Sprint's no-contract carriers, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile. These companies don't require a credit check or commitment and have very nice phone selections. Rather than sign on for a year or two, you pay full-freight for the phone. However, the monthly nut can be as little as $35 if you choose Virgin Mobile's 300-minute voice plan with unlimited texts and 2.5 GB of full-speed data, including 4G LTE on Sprint's network where available.

With Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile, you don't have to find a group to join. With either company, you can get unlimited mobile minutes, unlimited texts and 2.5 GB of full speed data for $55 per month. Neither company charges extra if you go over 2.5 GB; however, they can slow down the data speed. Boost even lowers your bill by as much as $15 a month after 18 months of on-time payments.

However, high-end phones can set you back $200 or $300 with Boost or Virgin, whereas with Sprint and a two-year contract, the same or similar phones may be less than $100. Framily's sliding scale means a family of four phone users would spend $40 a head per month for the 1 GB plan. With a prepaid phone, they'd each get 2.5 GB of data instead of 1 GB and could spend as little as $35 each per month if they don't need a lot of voice minutes. For a small "Framily" to realize significant savings, each group member would need to choose a free or very cheap phone option.

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