FreedomPop’s Free Mobile Data Plans: What You Need to Know

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FreedomPop via YouTube

A new company called FreedomPop is offering something that seems too good to be true: 500 MB of free mobile data per month through your choice of a wireless hotspot or USB stick.

The service, which was announced last December, launched in beta this week. You’ll need a credit card to put a deposit down on the hardware, but the fee is refunded if you send it back and cancel the service. You can check availability in your area and order a broadband device now through FreedomPop’s website.

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That all sounds pretty great, but there are some things you should know before jumping on board. Below, I’ll go over the basics and point out some important caveats as well.

What’s the free data good for?

FreedomPop offers a USB stick for a $49 deposit, or a portable hotspot for $89, both refundable minus the cost of shipping. The stick plugs into any PC or Mac, so it’s a good option if you’re often out and about with a laptop and there’s no Wi-Fi around. The hotspot provides wireless data for up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices at a time, so it makes more sense if you’ve got tablets or portable gaming devices to connect. Just keep in mind that it only gets about six hours on a charge.

FreedomPop is also taking pre-orders on sleeves for the fourth-generation iPod Touch, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. These sleeves do not provide voice or text service (though you can use VoIP services such as Skype). They simply work the same way as the portable hotspot, providing data for up to eight devices, including the iPhone or iPod itself.

Where does the data come from and where does it work?

FreedomPop piggybacks on Sprint’s 3G network and Clearwire’s 4G WiMax networks, but doesn’t offer nationwide coverage. Instead, coverage is available in 71 markets.

FreedomPop claims to offer 4G data speeds, but until 4G LTE becomes available next year, the network relies on the slower WiMax standard instead. Even then, the fastest speeds are only available to users who pay $3 per month for a speed boost. Free users get throttled.

How does the 500 MB data cap work?

Free users get 500 MB of data per month, and must pay 2 cents per MB for any extra data used. By default, FreedomPop charges $10 worth of credit when you get within 100 MB of your limit, which the company says is to ensure continued service. Users can turn off auto-charging in the account settings.

Users can refer friends to the service, and earn 10 MB per month for each friend who signs up, up to 500 MB total. However, the extra data only works while friends remain signed up. FreedomPop will also offer free data through promotional offers, so users can get more data by watching video ads, filling out surveys or joining e-mail lists.

Paid data services are available, starting at $10 per month for 1 GB, and going up to $60 per month for 10 GB. For those plans, overage charges drop down to 1 cent per MB.

Are there any ads or other funny business?

The service is ad-free, but as mentioned above, users can earn more data through promotional offers which may involve the exchange of personal information. For example, if a restaurant chain offers 20 MB of data in exchange for joining their e-mail list, that company gets to have your e-mail address for marketing purposes. That’s why FreedomPop’s privacy policy reserves the right to provide your personal information to third parties.

The company tells me that if you don’t participate in any of these offers, your personal information won’t be shared. Also, you can opt out of seeing promotional offers altogether through FreedomPop’s account settings.

Are there any other services like FreedomPop?

Remember NetZero, the company that offered free, ad-supported dial-up Internet in the 1990s? Earlier this year, the company started offering 200 MB per month of free mobile data, but with some caveats: The free service is only good for a year, you have to buy the USB stick or hotspot outright, and there’s no way to get extra data besides permanently switching to a paid monthly plan. However, there are no speed limits on NetZero’s free offering.

How well does FreedomPop work in the real world?

Not sure yet. I’ve ordered a mobile hotspot and will post some impressions after I’ve had some time with it.

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