Sprint shares rise as Verizon ends unlimited data plans

No. 3 carrier now only major U.S. wireless provider with no tiered pricing

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Shares of Sprint-Nextel (NYSE: S) rose more than 3 percent Thursday, when rival U.S. wireless carrier Verizon ceased offering unlimited data plans to new smartphone users.

Sprint shares climbed early Thursday as high as 5.745, or 4.3 percent above Wednesday's closing price of 5.51. Sprint's stock has climbed as high as 15 percent since closing at 5.00 on June 24.

(Also see: Sprint's smooth move

While Sprint continues to oppose the $39 billion acquisition of No. 4 U.S. wireless carrier T-Mobile USA by AT&T -- which currently splits about 80 percent of the market with Verizon -- the embrace of tiered data plans by Verizon leaves Sprint as the only U.S. carrier offering unlimited data to subscribers.

Under Verizon's revised plan, new smartphone subscribers have the option of paying:

$30 for 2 GB of data monthly

$50 for 5 GB

$80 for 10 GB

Subscribers are charged $10 for each additional gigabyte of data used.

How big an impact will this have on Verizon Wireless subscribers? It will have none for existing customers, who will be able to retain their unlimited data plans.

Further, even most new subscribers won't feel any data pinch. Verizon says 95 percent of subscribers fall below the 2 GB monthly data-use threshold.

Nonetheless, the shift gives Sprint another marketing opportunity. Recently the company offered service credits to subscribers of other wireless carriers who convert to Sprint.

But will an emphasis on unlimited data help Sprint lift its U.S. wireless market share out of the 16 percent to 17 percent range?

Really, the only way that will happen is if Sprint can steal data-hungry customers from AT&T and Verizon. And since data-hogs comprise a relatively small subset of mobile users, Sprint is only going to be nibbling at the margins.

Which apparently is enough to mildly excite investors on Thursday.

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