Sprint MVNO Scratch to stop offering free Wi-Fi calling and free cellular text messages

After three years of offering free Wi-Fi calling and free texting over Sprint's cellular network, Sprint MVNO Scratch Wireless confirmed to FierceWireless it will begin charging for those services starting Nov. 16.

"As other costs go up, like text 911 and others, it is impossible for us to completely absorb the costs of Wi-Fi calling and cellular text messages," Scratch founder and CEO Alan Berrey told FierceWireless. "Our customers still have access to free unlimited text messaging on Wi-Fi, free unlimited MMS on Wi-Fi, and free unlimited data on Wi-Fi. Again, we are only changing Wi-Fi calling and cellular text messaging."

Scratch previously offered Wi-Fi calling for free and charged $14.99 per month for unlimited cellular calling on Sprint's network. Now, the company is charging $9.99 per month for unlimited calling on Wi-Fi and cellular networks. The company is also bundling text messaging into its data passes; previously text messaging on cellular and Wi-Fi was free.

Berrey said the cost of the company's cellular data passes will remain the same. On the company's website, Scratch's data passes start at $1.99 for 50 MB for 24 hours and range up to $24.99 for 1 GB for 30 days.

"As I am sure you can appreciate, it costs a lot of money to provide free service to a large audience. Even costs like E911, regulation fees, USF, etc, create large burdens on our organization," Berrey said. "After careful consideration, we decided we need to reduce the amount of free service provided. We hope these changes will allow us to continue offering freemium smartphone service for many years to follow."

Berrey declined to say how many customers Scratch has.

Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem and a FierceWireless contributor, said the tweaks to Scratch's service plans likely won't affect the MVNO's overall value proposition. "I don't think this will significantly affect them," said Lowenstein, who first pointed out Scratch's changes on Twitter.

Lowenstein also noted that Scratch's pricing changes come amid increasing interest in the intersection of Wi-Fi and cellular. In recent weeks AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) launched Wi-Fi calling for the iPhone and Verizon introduced Wi-Fi calling via its Messages app. Further, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) confirmed it will begin testing cellular and Wi-Fi service in the coming months after activating its MVNO agreement with Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ).

Other companies playing in the space include heavyweights like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) with its Project Fi offering and Cablevision  with its Wi-Fi-only Freewheel service, as well as startups like Republic Wireless.

Lowenstein pointed out that most Wi-Fi calling services from the likes of Republic, Scratch and Google's Project Fi only work on a handful of phones, and aren't much cheaper than cellular-calling services from prepaid providers like AT&T's Cricket or T-Mobile US' (NYSE:TMUS) MetroPCS.

"Everybody is still figuring out the business models, and nobody has been wildly successful with this yet," he said.

Earlier this year, Scratch Wireless dropped unlimited cellular data passes from its pricing plans.

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Google's Project Fi MVNO isn't a threat to Wi-Fi-first players Republic, Scratch and FreedomPop
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