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But the performance would still be better than recent quarters, which have seen Sprint bleed money and cut thousands of jobs. And investors have taken note – Sprint’s stock has risen 55 percent since the unlimited plan was introduced.

Rival T-Mobile USA has introduced a $50 unlimited postpaid plan, but only for longtime customers. Such “retention offers” usually turn into “acquisition offers,” Altman said, meaning he believes T-Mobile will eventually use it to lure new customers.

The question then would be how the two largest carriers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, will react. Neither has directly moved to counter the inexpensive unlimited prepaid plans, and they’re fighting over a shrinking pool of potential customers. Analysts expect the four major carriers to show that they added just 1 million postpaid customers combined in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, prepaid has more room to grow. MetroPCS has already reported adding 684,000 subscribers in the first quarter, for a total of 6.1 million. More than 10 million people have unlimited-calling prepaid plans, and analyst Scott Pope at First Analysis Securities believes the potential market is about 45 million to 60 million people.

Options for Verizon Wireless and AT&T include creating their own “flanker brands,” or simply acquiring MetroPCS or Leap, Altman believes. The acquisition strategy would mainly be an option for Verizon Wireless, because its network is at least partly compatible with those of the upstarts.

AT&T is, indirectly, the biggest player in prepaid. It has a minor prepaid service of its own, but also sells wholesale minutes to America Movil SA, the Mexico-based parent of U.S. prepaid service Tracfone. Tracfone had 11.2 million subscribers at the end of last year. They pay by the minute, and spend an average of $10 per month.

For consumers, all this attention on prepaid plans is positive, though the services have some downsides.

There are fewer handsets to choose from on a prepaid plan, and hardly any “smart” phones. The phones that are available often are more expensive, because they’re either not subsidized by the carrier, or are subsidized less.

But after a few months of cheaper cell service, a prepaid plan comes out ahead in most cases.

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