FreedomPop's Unlimited WiFi Plan Challenges Carriers

FreedomPop's new deal offers unlimited WiFi at 10 million hotspots around the US for $5/month. But be aware of the restrictions.
9 CIO Tech Priorities For 2015
9 CIO Tech Priorities For 2015
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

FreedomPop has a new plan it hopes will convince people to ditch their wireless network carriers. The company is selling unlimited voice, text, and data service -- via WiFi -- for $5 per month. It's a tempting deal, but there are considerable restrictions to weigh before you take the plunge.

FreedomPop is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), reselling access to Sprint's network under its own name. The company already offers free and low-cost plans that use a mix of traditional cellular technology and WiFi, but FreedomPop's new plan ditches cellular altogether and relies only on WiFi.

The company has inked deals with unnamed WiFi hotspot aggregators to provide what it calls "seamless" access to WiFi at 10 million points around the US. In other words, FreedomPop's service will be available at places like Burger King, McDonald's, Panera, and Starbucks. It'll also be available in outdoor public WiFi zones in larger cities. FreedomPop's WiFi coverage map isn't very detailed, but it appears that there are numerous places to connect in most major metro areas. (FreedomPop told GigaOm that it is not working with Boingo, which means many major airports are out.)

How does the service work? In order to access the WiFi hotspots, customers will need to download FreedomPop's application. The app -- and the unlimited WiFi plan -- is available only to Android devices; FreedomPop didn't say if an iOS app is in the works. The app will provide the necessary handshake to connect to FreedomPop's WiFi network partners' hotspots. The connection will take place automatically in the background; users won't be required to sign in each time. The app will connect securely where secure connections are supported. Once connected, customers will be able to use their device for calling, messaging, and surfing the Web.

[At least two leading carriers have launched their own cheap service plans -- but be sure to read the fine print. T-Mobile, Virgin Offer New Low-Cost Plans.]

FreedomPop's model is designed to accept any device that is compatible with Sprint's network. That means no unlocked GSM phones -- the device must have CDMA and LTE on board with support for Sprint's network frequencies. Last fall the company began selling its own branded $79 phablet, which doesn't connect to cellular networks and is limited to WiFi. Clearly, FreedomPop hopes customers will pair the phablet with its new WiFi-based service, but customers may use any Android device with WiFi on board.

FreedomPop believes the low $5 price point and device flexibility will convince people to use its service not as their primary method for connectivity, but as a backup or secondary option. Consider your older, unused Android smartphones taking up space in a drawer, or a WiFi-only Android tablet -- these could take advantage of FreedomPop's WiFi service.

Given the limited WiFi footprint, businesses would be better off equipping employees with wireless devices supported by a major network operator. That said, however, FreedomPop's offering is a compelling option for tablets or spare phones. At $5 month, it's certainly worth testing.

Apps will make or break the tablet as a work device, but don't shortchange critical factors related to hardware, security, peripherals, and integration. Get the Tablets For Business issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)