You may have seen ads around starting last year touting fast, free, high-speed internet service by a company called FreedomPop. I initially wrote the “scheme” off as I figured there would be too many caveats, too many pitfalls, too many ads on their web pages they were serving and in general, just too many cons to outweigh the pros. While FreedomPop initially offered a “sleeve” that you could slip your iTouch or iPhone into that would give you data capability, they now also offer a USB stick for laptop (Mac and PC) and a MiFi like portable hotspot that can connect up to eight devices.
Given the fact that I have a family of five and only one of us (me!) has mobile data on any device, I figured FreedomPop’s 4G hotspot, called “The Photon” was worth checking out. The devices are theoretically “free” as you only pay a refundable security deposit for them- $10 for the USB stick and $99 for both the Photon and the iOS sleeves. I’ve been using the Photon for a month and am relatively happy with both the speed and the value proposition that this offers. Read on to learn more about FreedomPop.
Free? Yes and no.
Device Cost You do need to pony up for the device as previously mentioned. The amount is refundable if you return the device but be aware that there are a handful of restrictions on the return. Their policy says that they must be actively offering the same product, it is within a year of service starting, you notify them in advance that you are terminating and you have no balance that you owe them. Shipping and re-stocking fee (not stated) is on you and there’s a 90 day window they have to refund your money.
Data Free data is limited to 500 MB. While this is not a huge amount of data, it is perfectly fine for someone simply wanting a hotspot in the car to fetch maps on an iPad, read email, browse the web or other such things. There are ways to earn additional free data with referrals and affiliate offers but they don’t offer terribly much in the whole scheme of things.
Data Plans & Costs If a half-gig of data won’t cut it for you, there are two other plans available. There’s a 2GB plan for $17.99/month and a 4GB plan for $28.99/month. These rates are quite reasonable and about half of what you’d pay for a hotspot plan from most national carriers. If you go over on the paid plans, it is $.01/MB and $.02/MB on the free plan. There really are not any other “hidden” fees or tricks. As long as you stay under your allocated amount for whatever plan you are on, there are no surprises. You can choose to either add data automatically or cut data off once you get to your limit. As with any mobile data plan, you need to keep an eye on consumption if you are limited and have set to automatically add more to your account. Those one and two cent MB’s can add up quickly
The only other thing to be aware of is if you decide to get a FreedomPop plan, when checking out after selecting your plan (Free, 2GB or 4GB), they somewhat sneakily add in an upgrade option for $4/month that promises higher speeds. While it looks like you need to click the green button to continue checking out, it is the smaller, hard to see, link below that to continue without the upgrade.
Speed & Coverage I did not opt for the optional upgrade and am still quite happy with the speeds. I typically average about 12-15Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up. This is more than adequate for video streaming and music streaming, sending pictures, checking email and browsing the web. Even when multiple devices are connected, speed is still very robust. As FreedomPop transitions into Sprint’s LTE network, the speeds are expected to get even faster. Coverage has been very good around the metropolitan Boston area. Using a combination of Clearwire’s WiMax and Sprint’s data network, there have been very few dropouts as the coverage is very strong. Ironically, I have no coverage at my house at all, but strong coverage just a block away. This doesn’t concern me at all as I am using my Photon simply to stay in the car and not for home use. You’ll have to go to the FreedomPop website and check coverage for your area. Coverage is strong in many areas, particularly urban areas, but can be very sparse as you get away from population.
Battery Life & Portability & Use The battery life is excellent giving roughly five to six hours of use before needing a charge. For portability, the Photon is easy to carry around or slip into a bag when travelling, It is only about 2.5″ x 2.5″ x .5″ and weighs less than a deck of cards. As with any other MiFi type or portable hotspot, pairing is just as easy as connecting with a WiFi point anywhere else. You will definitely want to change the password from the default and keep it secured so you don’t have leechers driving your data consumption up. The range is about what you’d expect from a device like this giving you about 75′ – 100′ of a strong signal. Indicator lights show power status, 4G status and WiFi status (if anyone is actively connected). As with a home router, you can access settings by entering 192.168.1.1 in your browser.
Ads and other Shenanigans My biggest fear was that there would be large ad banners on web pages or periodic pop-ups to help underwrite the freemium model. Fortunately, this is not the case. The Photon simply acts like any other WiFi router and does not add any ads or garbage to your browsing sessions. From your dashboard where you can manage your account, there are plenty of offers to add additional data to your monthly allocation. I imagine if you take advantage of those, that you can expect additional junk e-mail. Finding friends already using FreedomPop (via email search from your contacts) and connecting with them adds 10Mb per month per friend.
Bottom Line I have been extremely pleased to add the FreedomPop Photon to the family car. It gives the kid’s iTouches, laptops, phones and tablets data without having to add them to a data plan. 500Mb has been perfect and I can’t complain about the price-tag of free. However, given the robust speeds, decent coverage around me, and the general reliability and ease of use, I am bumping up to the 2GB plan to give us more data (still at a very reasonable rate). For someone needing periodic coverage when travelling (and don’t feel like paying $10 at airports that hose you for WiFi) or just a a casual user of data, the FreedomPop is an outstanding value that works well and does what it advertises. While I did not test the iTouch sleeves or USB dongle, I imagine comparable results would be expected. Have a question about FreedomPop? Let me know and I’d be happy to answer.
500Mb/ month Free
[all plans plus security deposit for device]
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