Several startups are challenging the status quo and offering cheap – even free – wireless Internet. It's about time.
I pay $45 a month for home broadband Internet and another $20 a month for 2GB of 4G data on my smartphone. That’s $65 a month and $780 a year just to browse the Internet.
If it were up to me, the Internet would always be free and I could use it anytime I want. I’m betting that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but there are free options for the casual Internet user.
Two service providers – FreedomPop and NetZero – are giving away limited amounts of free data every month. So if you’re an Internet junkie, you can now find dirt-cheap broadband access that lets you connect anywhere you go.
In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson interviewed a FreedomPop user, Michael Marchetta, to see what this new service is like. Check it out and then read on for the scoop on more service providers offering free (or cheap) WiFi.
Now let’s hash out the details on FreedomPop and give you a bunch more options…
When you sign up for FreedomPop, you’ll get a small wireless access point. Anytime you want to browse the Web, turn it on, connect a computer or other device, and you’re ready to go. You can connect up to 10 devices on one account, like laptops, smartphones, and tablet PCs, including iPads.
FreedomPop has different costs depending on how you browse the Web. First, you’ll need to send a deposit for the WiFi access point. Currently, FreedomPop has three options ranging from $49.99 to $99. If you return the access point within a year, you’ll get your money back. If you don’t, the device is yours and you won’t get your deposit back.
For service, you get 500MB of 4G wireless Internet usage free a month. That isn’t a lot, but you can do some basic things. For example, uSwitch says it takes 100KB to browse a Web page or read an email. Other things are bigger data hogs. Downloading a photo takes 2MB, downloading a song, 5MB, and watching a video takes about 1MB per minute. So, here is what you can do with 500MB:
- Browse 5,000 Web pages
- Check 5,000 emails
- Download 250 photos
- Download 100 MP3s
- Watch about eight hours of online video
That’s probably enough for a very casual user, but if you use a streaming service like Netflix, download a lot of music, or stay online for hours at a time, you’ll need more data.
FreedomPop has two options. One, a prepaid monthly service for a flat fee depending on how much data you need. However, the service terms say you’ll need to sign a contract (about two years) to get the best prices. Your other option is a pay-as-you-go service. You sign up for the free 500MB and if you go over, FreedomPop will charge you for the next tier of service. As Stacy mentioned in the video, the next tier is $18 for 2GB of data.
The startup company is still beta testing so service isn’t available everywhere. Use the coverage site to check your address.
NetZero also offers free WiFi access. Once you buy a connection stick for $49.95 or a hotspot device for $99.95, you’ll get 200MB free a month at 4G speeds. That’s enough to browse a few thousand sites or check a few thousand emails, but not much else. You can earn more bandwidth by bringing in friends and doing things like answering surveys; otherwise, you’ll be paying extra.
If you need more data, NetZero also has four monthly plans:
- Basic – 500MB for $9.95 per month
- Plus – 1,000MB for $19.95 per month
- Pro – 2,000MB for $34.95 per month
- Platinum – 4,000MB for $49.95 per month
If you don’t need unlimited data, NetZero is a viable (and cheap) option for WiFi access, but their service area is limited. Currently, they mostly cover the east and west coasts and a few southern states like Texas and Florida. You can see their coverage map on the NetZero homepage.
Clear doesn’t offer free Internet access, but they do have affordable options if you need to connect on the go. Here is how their pricing structure works.
You’ll have to buy a connection device. Clear has four options:
- Clear USB for laptops – $39.99
- Clear Stick Atlas for laptops and other devices – $39.99
- Clear Spot Voyager for connecting up to eight devices – $49.99
- Clear Hub Express for home Internet connections – $49.99
Then you’ll need to pick a monthly service plan:
- 2GB plan – $19.99 per month up to 4G speeds
- 4G Internet Basic – $34.99 per month with unlimited data and download speeds up to 1.5 Mbps
- 4G Internet Plan – $49.99 per month unlimited data with faster speeds – up to 6 Mbps
The downside – service is limited to select areas. You can check your address on the Check Coverage page, but service isn’t available in several states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Iowa.
Karma is a pay-as-you-go service provider with a built-in option to earn free access, but it has some potential downsides. Here’s how it works:
First, you buy the Karma hotspot, currently retailing for $79. The device lasts for six to eight hours on one charge and can connect up to eight devices at once. Once you have the device, you can buy data as you need it – 1GB at a time for $14.
Karma also has a WiFi sharing feature that lets you earn free data. After signing up, Karma will create an open WiFi network under your account. Anytime someone else tries to connect to your network, Karma will prompt them to create their own account. If they do, you’ll both get 100MB of free data.
Currently, Karma is offering 1GB of 4G data free for signing up, but you’ll have to link your Facebook account to the Karma app page to purchase a hotspot. Karma also has a limited coverage area. Right now they’re only in major cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Dallas. You can check your address on their coverage map.
The bottom line: If you don’t spend a lot of time browsing the Web, a free service like FreedomPop or NetZero might be a good choice, especially for the occasional user wanting to use their iPad in a car, or at the beach.
If you need more data, NetZero and Clear are both cheaper than some major service providers. And if you care about speed, Clear’s unlimited 4G Internet plan might be a good option. In any case, it’s about time someone challenged the ridiculous prices we’re all forced to pay for something that’s become a modern necessity.
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