Wal-Mart is moving into the "post-paid" cell phone market with a $45-per-month, unlimited talk/texting plan that it says could save a family of three up to $1,200 per year. Wal-Mart Family Mobile will operate on the T-Mobile network starting Sept. 20.

Wal-Mart is billing its Family Mobile as a "no surprise" service, with a fixed monthly rate of $45 for the first line and $25 per month for each additional line. Data plans -- for accessing the Internet -- come with a free preloaded 100MB "WebPak" on each line. The company said the WebPak is shared among all lines on an account and unused data never expires. Additional WebPak refill cards are purchased upfront in stores or online.

Consumers will be billed at the end of each month, rather than paying in advance as they do with a prepaid phone. Hence, the "post-paid" moniker.

"Wal-Mart Family Mobile makes it more affordable to build meaningful relationships with family and friends so that even when budgets are limited, time spent communicating with loved ones isn't," said Greg Hall, vice president of merchandising, Wal-Mart U.S. "This plan provides families with the flexibility to connect with each other without surprise charges and with the added benefit of one of the most trusted wireless network providers."

The plan offers phones from Samsung, Motorola and Nokia, including phones with the Android Operating System, QWERTY keyboard, touch screens and other features. Since there is no annual contract, customers can upgrade anytime by purchasing a new handset with no extra fees or contract commitment.

Prices for the phones range from $34.96 for the Nokia 1661 to $249 for the Motorola Clique XT. The Motorola model is the only smartphone currently being offered but Wal-Mart officials said additional devices will be added later.

Not a Nexus

Observers noted that Wal-Mart's plan included many of the features that were heavily promoted by Google when it rolled out its Nexus One cell phone, an unbundled smartphone that could be purchased independently of any data plan. The phone was sold only online and was quickly declared a flop, largely because of customer service issues that Wal-Mart should be able to overcome with its huge network of stores.

A possible stumbling block, however, is the T-Mobile network, which was also the default network for the Nexus One. T-Mobile generally gets high marks for its engineering but its penetration in lightly populated areas is regarded as inferior to Verizon, AT&T and Sprint -- a shortcoming cited by many ConsumerAffairs.com readers.

"Their reception is very bad," said Luis of Livermore, Calif. "Like in stores I don't get a lot of reception even though there is coverage. I see a lot of people walking and talking on the phone while I just go and exit buildings in order to receive reception. IT SUCKS!"

Or, as Craig of Jupiter, Fla., put it in a complaint several years ago: "Their coverage map should carry the footnote, 'We really have no idea where we have a signal, so we had an artist make this up. Her favorite color is red, so she used it a lot.' "

For its part, T-Mobile says its "robust" network is just what talkative families ordered.

"Wal-Mart is known for great value and we're pleased to offer our robust network of nationwide coverage for Wal-Mart Family Mobile," said Jim Alling, Chief Operations Officer, T-Mobile USA. "This new service is an innovative approach, offering post-paid customers a low-cost alternative for unlimited voice, messaging, web and inexpensive international calling."

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