I first saw the headline on this offer and became excited. Free wireless service? That's not the limited-range wi-fi service that only works 100 to 200 feet from a base station. In this case, it is the longer-range wireless service provided by a cell phone company. If you can connect to a cell phone tower, you can obtain free Internet connectivity at roughly DSL broadband speeds. There are some catches, however.
In fact, as I read more and the more, the "catches" cooled my initial enthusiasm. Yet, for some people who only need occasional Internet service, this could be a very attractive offer.
You may remember NetZero, one ofthe first free Internet providers. NetZero obtained millions of customers back in 1998 through the early 2000s by offering free Internet service using dial-up telephone connections. The NetZero dialer constantly displayed advertisements on your screen and those ads paid for the service. However, NetZero's business soon went flat when online advertising rates dropped worldwide. NetZero couldn't make enough revenue from ads to cover its expenses.
Now the company is making a comeback bid by offering free 4G wireless access. While the company says it is "their" cellular data network, the actual servcie is provided by Sprint. I presently own a Sprint wireless data "air card" and have found that coverage is usually good and the 4G network connections are quite fast. Presumably, NetZero customers would obtain the same service.
There are some major restrictions:
The offer is only available in the United States.
Customers must buy special equipment from NetZero: either a $50 "mini-antenna" for a laptop or a $100 mobile hotspot that will let them connect any WiFi device. You cannot use an existing Sprint device you might already own. (OK, there goes my first bit of enthusiasm.)
Second, the free account is limited to 200 megabytes of data each month, a little less than the cheapest services offered by major cellphone networks. That's enough for most anyone to retrieve a few thousand email messages and to surf the web several hours every month. However, if you spend a lot of time online or if you start downloading videos, you will quickly exceed the 200 megabyte limit. Once the limit is reached, NetZero blocks all further access for the rest of the month.
Finally, NetZero's free service is available to each customer for only one year. That's right: you are restricted to twelve months of free access. After that, the customer must switch to a paid plan from NetZero: 500 megabytes per month for $9.95 or 4 gigabytes for $50, or drop the service entirely.
These prices are about the same as those already offered by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Virgin Mobile, and a few others. Admittedly, these other companies do not offer a free 12-month "introductory offer."
One advantage of NetZero's free offer: there is no long-term contract. You can purchase the required device, use it for a trip or even for a season, then simply stop using it. There are no cancellation penalties.
NetZero also offers other paid plans, ranging from $9.95 per month for 500 megabytes each month to $49.95 per month for 4 gigabytes (4,000 megabytes) service each month. On these paid plans, if you go over the allotted data amount, the service continues to function but you will be charged extra for the additional data.
I suspect this service will be very popular amongst those who travel occasionally or for a family's annual vacation. Service should work well in a recreational vehicle as well as in hotel rooms. Paying $50 or $100 for the wireless device is a lot cheaper than paying $10 a night to a hotel for wireless access if you stay more than a very few nights. Even better, the wireless device also works in parks, on commuter trains, at the seashore, and at most other places. I expect foreign visitors to the U.S. will be attracted to this service as well. It makes economic sense for anyone staying in the U.S. for a few weeks and simply wants to exchange email with the folks "back home" and do limited web surfing.
However, the free offer isn't very attractive to "road warriors," such as myself, who spend weeks and weeks traveling every year and need reliable Internet service. For those of us who plan to use a lot of wireless data, it's probably better to stick to less restrictive service plans from other firms.
You can read more in USA Today at http://goo.gl/ja8iW and on the NetZero web site at http://www.netzero.net/.
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