It's rare that I need a 4G data connection. There is Wi-Fi at home. There is Wi-Fi at the office. There is even free Wi-Fi throughout downtown San Jose (though the city's moniker of "WickedlyFastWiFi" ought to be changed "WickedlyFlaccidWiFi").
For me, however, today is a day when 4G is a necessity, as I am reporting live from the Moscone Center at the ABA Annual Meeting. Though Moscone also has free Wi-Fi, the train ride up here didn't. And if you ask any person who has ever reported from a convention center, the free public Internet can become clogged and unusable very quickly.
With those considerations in mind, I brought along my FreedomPop 4G stick for testing in the wild.
What Is FreedomPop?
A few years back, Sprint bet heavily on a new form of "4G," the WiMax standard. They were alone in making that bet, as other carriers all flocked to LTE. After a few years, Sprint reversed course and began setting up its own LTE network, leaving the WiMax network -- active in a handful of major metropolitan areas -- nearly deserted.
FreedomPop rents space on that network and doles it out for free. Yes, free. There are a few catches, however.
You have to purchase a modem, which currently runs between $40 and $100, though the modems are frequently on sale.
Also, the plans are a bit tricky. When I signed up, the "free" 2GB plan was only free for the first month. In order to sign up for the perpetually free 500MB plan (great for email or emergency use, but not nearly enough for daily, full-time use), you'd have to call and have an operator switch you over manually. Now, it appears the 500MB plan is available online.
Finally, there are a number of hidden fees that you'll have to watch for. The biggest is automatic top-up, which charges your card to put backup credit on your account to cover overages. You can disable the automatic top-up feature, but your Internet will stop working when you reach your limit.
The other fee is an inactivity fee. If you don't use your modem for at least 5MB per month (downloading a song or two would cover it), you'll be charged a small maintenance fee.
Does It Work?
Check your coverage. In the Bay Area, the device works brilliantly. It provided constant coverage, except in tunnels, on the hour-long train ride into San Francisco this morning.
While the device has been a godsend this morning, it was absolutely useless on my last cross-country road trip. From the moment I left town, there was no reception at all, in any city I traversed. I can't blame them for that -- the term "flyover states" exists for a reason. Still, the coverage limitations are something to be aware of.
Once reception and cost (nearly free) are factored in, these devices are an absolute must for the sporadic use, especially if you can find one of their modems on sale. Even with the occasional surprise charge, the service is worth the near-zero cost.
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