Anyone with a WiFi-only tablet has at one time or another run into the problem of having no internet connection while on the go. For those moments, FreedomPop offers an unusual bargain — mobile data service for free with the purchase of a WiFi hotspot. Too good to be true, right? Maybe a little, but once you dig into the details, what you get is still pretty good.
FreedomPop’s basic business model is this: get people subscribed to free basic service, and hope enough of them spring for premium options to make it profitable. And impressively enough, it’s managed to do this without the obnoxious nickel-and-dime behavior so many “freemium” business models involve.
Choosing a Hotspot
To get online with FreedomPop, the first thing you need to do is buy one of its mobile hotspots. Depending on your choice and what’s in stock at the moment, you can choose either to buy brand new or get a used unit and simply have it activated.
There are several models of hotspot available, but the company’s website is less than helpful telling you the very important difference between them. FreedomPop offers service on both Sprint’s LTE network, and Sprint’s older WiMAX service which is run by its subsidiary Clearwire. But the FreedomPop devices don’t switch between these: you either have one or the other.
The older, less expensive hotspots — like the Overdrive Pro priced at $60 on its website — all use Clearwire. Only the relatively new FreedomSpot 5580, which comes with a suggested retail price of $150, offers you access to Sprint’s LTE network. And unless your only real concern is absolute low cost, it’s worth the investment.
It’s not just the fact that the LTE network is considerably faster than the alternative, boasting speeds in the 6Mbps to 8Mbps range versus less than 3Mbps for Clearwire. While the extra speed is nice, it’s not essential for most things.
Much more importantly, Sprint’s LTE network covers a far wider area, roughly 200 markets nationwide compared to Clearwire’s 88, and LTE coverage is still growing. So all in all, the LTE hotspot is generally going to be a better investment for the future even if you have to drop a little more money up front.
That said, you should make sure to check coverage maps for your specific area. You may find that WiMax coverage is available near you, but Sprint LTE is nowhere to be seen, in which case the lower tech solution may be the way to go, at least for now.
UPDATE: Sprint’s WiMAX network will be shut down on Nov. 6, 2015. Therefore, FreedomPop’s mobile hotspots that depend on that network will stop functioning on that date. This change won’t affect the company’s hotspots that use LTE.
The Data Plans
When it comes time to select the data plan to go with your hotspot, you might expect to find out that the “free” plan comes with some kind of hidden fees or the like. But although FreedomPop does try to get you to sign up for a one month free trial of the 2GB plan instead, the basic plan is exactly as promised, 500MB of internet access per month for as free as the air it travels through.
There are a few catches, of course. You can only use your 500MB free plan in areas where Sprint has 4G coverage. Outside of that, even on Sprint’s own network, you’ll get nothing without a premium upgrade that I’ll talk about in a minute.
Certainly, 500MB a month doesn’t sound like a lot in a world where you can rack that up on YouTube in a horribly short amount of time. But if you’re not burning through those sorts of high-data applications, 500MB can go a surprisingly long way. You could browse the web daily, check your email and social networks, read the news, and still not run through that in a month, especially if you use a data-efficient browser like Opera.
In tests, speeds on FredomPop’s WiMAX hotspot weren’t great, but they were adequate for most things. Depending on the market you’re in, WiMAX might give you speeds as much as 3Mbps downstream, or less than one. Unfortunately, it’s highly variable. But even the worst case scenario is still adequate for a lot of web browsing, and those with access to LTE have nothing to worry about.
Surprisingly, overage fees — one of the biggest places you’d expect to find a pitfall — aren’t a problem either. You can choose not to set up your account to allow automatic refilling of your data in the event you get close to your limit, in which case it will simply shut off at 500MB until the beginning of the next month, with absolutely no risk of running up a huge bill without realizing it. Or if you do set it up to let you go over 500 MB, the cost is only 2 cents per megabyte, making even a full gigabyte of overage only $20. Compared to most per-megabyte pricing, that’s fairly cheap.
Of course, FreedomPop isn’t just giving stuff away because it feels like it; the company expects to make money off enough of its customers to make it worthwhile, by way of offering paid upgrades and options. However, unlike a lot of “freemium” services which attempt to nickel and dime their customers over every little thing, FreedomPop’s options are generally well worth the money.
For instance, a $4-a-month option for your free plan allows you to roam onto Sprint’s 3G network as well, which covers a lot more places than either the LTE or WiMAX networks. Another $4 option lets you roll over up to 500MB of unused data month to month, storing as much as 20 GB of data to be used later. This is a particularly good option if you only use your connection irregularly; rather than paying for a much larger data plan for a month or two, you can simply store up data for the months when your usage is high. Thus for the monthly price of a Netflix account, you could have service anywhere on the Sprint network with a nice fat bucket of data to dip into when needed.
Of course if you decide that 500MB simply isn’t enough for you, FreedomPop also offers larger plans, such as a $20/month option that gives you 2GB of data plus 3G roaming. Even though that’s far from the “free” price that we started out with, it’s still very reasonable compared to the competition. Sprint’s price for a 3GB hotspot plan starts at $35 a month, and T-Mobile’s $20 a month plan offers only 500MB of data at 4G speeds.
FreedomPop offers larger plans running all the way up to 10 GB per month; although the 10GB plan is a fairly hefty $90 a month, the 5GB plan is a remarkably cost effective $40, awfully effective for a family trip if the coverage is right.
FreedomPop certainly has its fair share of limitations and catches. The coverage is iffy, the network options are complicated, and the data on the free plan is limited. But once you get past those, you’re looking at a service which can be an invaluable aid for light or sporadic users.
Whether it’s a backup internet connection for when others aren’t available, a handy fallback for travelers, or just a day-to-day internet connection for people who don’t need that much data, a few hundred megs of wireless service can go a long way, and the price is very reasonable.
- Inexpensive basic hotspot service
- Reasonably priced data and options
- Excellent fall-back option for occasional users
- Extremely limited coverage area
- High initial investment
Although it has a lot of limitations, FreedomPop is definitely worth a look for anyone who wants an on-the-go internet connection but not the cost of an LTE tablet and data plan.