FreedomPop offers free -- yes, free -- 4G cellular data on the Sprint / Clearwire network. It can be a great deal, but you have to buy some hardware first and then you have to be careful to avoid the many traps they set to upsell you to pay services.
FreedomPop's a bold experiment: It's a mobile broadband provider, using Sprint/Clearwire's 4G networks, that offers a free, basic-service tier. That's right: 500MB, every month, free and clear, with higher-usage tiers available at extra cost.
The tricky part is all the fine print and hidden gotchas you have to navigate to use FreedomPop without running up a major bill in additional charges. Such, it seems, is the real price of "free" in this day and age. In fact, in its default configuration, you will get charged at least $2.99 per month for FreedomPop, although you can turn off the service that brings this charge.
Getting in the door with FreedomPop isn't free, either. To use FreedomPop's services at all, you have to buy a device that provides you with access to the network. If you're an iPhone or iPod user, you can buy a device sleeve. For a more generic approach, you can get a portable hotspot or USB stick.
To get the maximum amount of device compatibility, I chose the Freedom Spot Photon hotspot, a gizmo about 2 1/2 in. (6.5 cm.) long and 2/5 in. (1 cm.) thick, which can support up to eight Wi-Fi connected devices at once and claims a battery life of six hours. FreedomPop is still in the trial phase, so the pricing might change between now and when it's made available to the general public, but the a sleeve is $99, and the Photon device cost me an $89 deposit.
Using the hotspot is easy enough. Fire it up and wait for a green light on the Wi-Fi indicator, then connect to the hotspot via the name and password printed on the bottom of the device. The default password can be changed, fortunately.
Provided reception is good in your area, FreedomPop's speeds are pretty impressive. I went into midtown Manhattan, where I had a full five bars of signal, and was able to achieve 10-megabit download, 1.2-megabit upload speeds there. My house, however, on the north shore of Long Island, barely got a signal at all--but then I'm used to getting almost nonexistent cell reception there. (Hence my attempts to use devices such as the Wi-Ex zBoost to fix the problem.)
I conducted my speed tests with FreedomPop's premium Speed Plus setting enabled. According to FreedomPop, Speed Plus increases download and upload speeds by about 50%. That means without Speed Plus turned on, I could have expected only 8-Mbps downloads and 1-Mbps uploads at best. Those aren't spectacular speeds, but they should be plenty fast enough for email and Web surfing.
To track your usage, FreedomPop provides you with a dashboard that lists not only how much you've used in a given month, but times and dates for usage--a nice way to correlate what you did with how much bandwidth you used. I'd recommend bookmarking that page and checking it before embarking on any major network usage, just to make sure you don't blow out your allotment by accident.
The Freedom Spot Photon hotspot (click to enlarge).
Two things irked me about FreedomPop, at least as it was delivered to me in the beta test phase. One was a feature named Automatic Top-Up. When enabled, it automatically adds $10 of bandwidth to your account whenever you come within 100MB of your monthly allotment. The bad news is, even with the free account tier, Automatic Top-Up is enabled by default. I had to dig around in my account settings to disable it.
Click to enlarge.
Another sneaky enabled-by-default up sell is Speed Plus, the premium setting that increases download speed to 12 Mbps and upload speed to 1.5 Mbps. That's another $2.99 tacked onto your monthly bill. So in other words, as configured by default, you'll pay for FreedomPop. So much for free service. Then again, considering how well Speed Plus works--I got very close to the top speeds in my own tests--you might want to leave this default setting alone and pay the $2.99 a month.
Other add-on services, which are not enabled by default as far as I can tell, include usage alerts to keep you from going over your cap, $1.99 a month.
In sum, it isn't the technical side of FreedomPop that seems the issue, but the business side of the service. As long as you don't mind keeping an eye open for all the different ways the company tries to up sell, it might prove to be a handy way to buy mobile bandwidth without the inconvenience of dealing with a mobile carrier's device and service contracts.