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Helio Back with $29 Unlimited Plan, Crazy-Slow Speeds

Helio is betting the number on your monthly cell phone bill is more important to you than how fast data can reach your mobile device.

The carrier, which first hit the scene nearly a decade ago before going dormant in 2010, is back on the mobile virtual network operator scene and hoping to attract new customers with a $29 monthly cell phone plan that includes unlimited talk, text and data. To sweeten the deal, Helio says your first month with its cellular service will come at no charge.

Oh, but there's a catch. Helio's network maxes out at 128 Kbps, which isn't that much better than dial up and means that data-intensive activities like streaming media are out of the question. By contrast, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile -- two discount carriers that, like Helio, piggyback on Sprint's network -- offer subscribers 4G LTE speeds for their monthly data plans. And even with video streaming capped at 3G speeds for those carriers, that's still much faster than the performance Helio advertises.

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It's curious then, that Helio contends that it offers subscribers a "better network than Boost and Virgin Mobile." That claim is based on network coverage rather than performance. In addition to using Sprint's network, Helio taps into Verizon's network for free roaming to extend its coverage area.

Helio's smartphone offerings represent some of 2013's greatest hits, led by the Samsung Galaxy S4. The company does have a Bring Your Own Phone program that supports Sprint-compatible phones and factory unlocked phones bought directly from Apple and Google in case you'd like a more current device.

Helio first tried making waves in 2006 as an MVNO on Sprint's network, but quickly found the U.S. cellular market to be tough sledding. Virgin Mobile, which acquired Helio in 2008, shut down the service two years later. The latest incarnation of the Helio brand comes from South Korea's UBI Telecom.

The market may prove to be just as challenging now for Helio as it was back then, with several discount carriers offering faster data for only a few dollars more each month than Helio's $29 plan. Helio has to hope that the lure of unlimited data for less than $30 each month will outweigh the faster speeds of its rivals. 

Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.