The allure of something free: It tempts us and taunts us and beckons us closer. New wireless Internet provider FreedomPop is another of those crazy startup companies that is trying change the rules on how we access the Internet. As you can guess from the company’s name, “FREE” is its marketing pitch.
FreedomPop has what is referred to as a “Freemium” business model. The company will give you the basics for free but it is going to work very hard to make some money off you. It uses Clear wireless 4G service but is rolling out support for Sprint’s 3G and WiMax with upcoming support for Sprint LTE networks over the second half of 2013.
FreedomPop has two basic hardware platforms for completely free Internet that make sense for most people: a mobile WiFi hotspot called the Photon and a home WiFi hotspot called Burst. Both are branded versions of the hardware Clear offers, and each can have up to eight people online at a time. It also offers a USB-stick sized Internet gadget that is limited to a single user. You are responsible for a one-time hardware charge of $39.99 for the mobile Photon and $89.99 for the home unit.
What you get free
FreedomPop will give you 500 megabytes of Internet usage a month for free with its mobile Photon device or 1 gigabyte with its home-based Burst unit. If you go over these amounts, you’ll pay two cents per megabyte.
The free service runs at limited speeds. Download speeds were not bad in my tests (between 1-4 MB/second) but the upload speeds were pretty poor. If you pay for an upgraded plan, speeds increase.
Earning more free data
FreedomPop gives you ways to earn additional free data usage by filling out surveys or completing marketing offers. You can also earn more data by referring friends to the service. Personally, this structure drives me crazy, but you can rack up some free data by going through the process. There is one catch: Unless you pay for FreedomPop’s rollover plan ($3.49 a month) this earned data will disappear at the beginning of your next billing cycle.
Here are some of those data-earning opportunities:
The biggest downside to using FreedomPop is its coverage zone. While you can use the Sprint Nationwide network on the newest Overdrive module it offers, there is no free option for this. You must pay some kind of a monthly fee to have access to that side of its network.
If you want completely free Internet, you must be in one of these network areas. They are primarily limited to larger cities; coverage between markets is basically nonexistent except in the densely populated Northeast.
How far does 500 MB go? It depends on what you do. I decided to push it a bit and used the Photon as my primary Internet access. I watched some YouTube videos, uploaded and downloaded pictures and checked my email. A couple of hours of hard usage turned into about 100 MB of data. An average smartphone picture is somewhere between 1 to 3 MB and a video on YouTube can run upwards of 100 MB. You can see how this would add up quickly.
Buy more coverage if you need it
Because of that, FreedomPop is also willing to sell you lots of upgrades to your service. Alerts to warn you where you stand, faster data, data rollover and security are all packages that are available at a monthly charge of $2 to $4 each.
Monthly plans for more coverage break down in the chart below. If you have a monthly plan, data overages are only charged at a penny per megabyte. FreedomPop has an online indicator to show you how much data you have used, as well as iOS and Android apps to track your usage and allow you to manage your account and earn free data.
Unless you are a very light Internet user, the free 500 MB plan will not give you enough data to cover your needs. For a light user doing basic email, some browsing and social networking, the free home unit at 1 GB of data a month might just cover you, especially if you are willing to suffer through some surveys to earn some additional free data.
One thing to be aware of is that FreedomPop will lock your account 100 MB short of your allowed total unless you have set up your account to automatically recharge your data by billing your credit card. Rather than trickle charges out a megabyte at a time, this allows them to charge you $10 and post the balance as a credit on your account. The upside of setting it up without authorizing FreedomPop to auto charge you is that it is difficult (but not impossible) to go over your free allowance.
As a secondary device for taking on the road, FreedomPop could be very useful as long as there is coverage in the places you will be going. If you compare FreedomPop’s service to something similar from Sprint, you could get 5 GB a month for $35, which is what Sprint would charge you for 3 GB. In all fairness, Sprint’s coverage area is much broader but Sprint also charges five times as much for overages.
Is FreedomPop for everyone? No, it is not perfect, but it is certainly intriguing. There is no contract required and you can change your plan at any time. It could be very valuable if you need data service some of the time but not constantly. It would also be perfect if you are looking to add remote data capability to a tablet with WiFi only.