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Contract-based cell phone service is slowly going the way of the dinosaur. Consumers are happily dishing out full retail price for smartphones in return for not being tied down by a long-term contract. And, as more people embrace prepaid or pay-as-you-go cellular plans, service providers are moving quickly to offer more options.

Wal-Mart Stores just announced that starting January 11, it’s offering the iPhone 5 without a contract. The company has teamed up with Straight Talk Wireless to offer the iPhone 5 for $649 plus a $45 a month no-contract plan. That plan includes unlimited talk, text and data. Cricket Wireless started offering a prepaid version of the iPhone 5 back in September.

Traditional service providers like Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are either merging with no-contract carriers or offering the service themselves as the prepaid market continues to grow.

During the second quarter of this year, the U.S. prepaid market surpassed the 100 million subscribers mark, growing 12 percent year-over-year while the postpaid market remained flat, according to a report from Chetan Sharma Consulting. Consumers are embracing the pre-paid market as more low-cost, quality smartphones become available.

Sprint is the latest service provider to launch a Sprint-branded prepaid service as it tries to tap that market itself. Sprint already has a number of prepaid brands, including Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, Assurance Wireless, and payLo by Virgin Mobile, but wants to offer the service itself. Starting January 25, Sprint will offer Sprint-branded, no contract phones with unlimited talk, text and data.

Additionally, starting January 9, T-Mobile announced that it would start offering its Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data plan with no annual contract for $70. The plan includes unlimited voice, text and data with no overage fees. T-Mobile’s prepaid handsets range from the entry-level T-Mobile Prism for $150 to the high-end Samsung Galaxy S III for $550. You can also bring unlocked devices like the Nexus 4.


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