FreedomPop launches Monday, offering free mobile data across the US to those who have WiMAX coverage and don't look too closely at the small print.
The headline promise is clear enough: "100% free high speed internet - any device, anywhere", and the name of Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom lends the project credibility, but read the small print and you'll realise that it only applies to devices you buy from FreedomPop, and if you want more than 500MB you'll have to earn it.
Talking to The Wall Street Journal FreedomPop explained that it intends to make money by selling premium services, such as priority access, but the terms and conditions show that monthly fees and data rates will apply to most users, and anyone wanting a freebie will have to earn it "by performing specified actions with our third-party advertisers (eg, completing a questionnaire or purchasing a product or service)", so in most cases we're talking about a cheap service, not a free one.
Customers will also have to buy a $100 sleeve for their iPhone, though they will apparently be able to lease a Mi-Fi hotspot too. Those devices (the only ones FreedomPop will allow to connect) use ClearWire's WiMAX network, which has the advantage of becoming less congested daily as even WiMAX-poster-child ClearWire gives up on the technology, but customers are promised free replacement kit when FreedomPop migrates to Sprint's LTE network around March next year.
The freebie operator also reserves the right to insist on special software being installed on devices used with the network, and users will have to agree not to "reverse engineer, reverse compile or decompile, disassemble, or otherwise attempt to discover the source code" of that software, so no peeking under the hood to see what it's doing.
At one point FreedomPop was signed with LightSquared, the audacious, and ultimately futile, attempt to launch a new mobile network using frequencies previously reserved for satellite comms, but when that started to go pear-shaped, FreedomPop was among the first to jump ship.
FreedomPop is basically lowering the cost of data by using every trick in the book to bring down the cost while keeping the service viable - use less than 5MB in a month, for example, and you'll get charged a dollar in "Active Status fee", which will no doubt catch a few people out. So a handful of people able to navigate the terms and conditions will, no doubt, get free internet access, but to most users it will be a cheap addition to their cellular coverage which they'll have to maintain if only for the voice service and coverage available.
That model is certainly more sustainable than giving everything away for free, and the service is officially in beta, so FreedomPop reserves the right to change everything at some unspecified time in the future when the beta ends, despite the fact that customers are being asked to sign up for two years (to get the lowest rates).
FreedomPop will get a lot of press for promising free mobile broadband, a headline promise which will attract a good many customers regardless OF whether it ultimately turns out to be a practical proposition. ®