Free isn’t a word you hear very often in the world of Internet service providers, but there are occasions where it comes up, typically with pages of disclaimers and hidden charges. NetZero made waves in the late ’90s when it introduced the concept of free (ad-supported) dial-up service to customers, making it possible to check your email and chat with friends with little more than a phone line required.
Once broadband service became the norm, NetZero all but ceased to make headlines and became just another ISP option out there.
That is, until NetZero introduced its latest service option featuring 4G mobile broadband with no contracts and a liquid plan selection allowing you to switch between plans as needed. One plan, offering 200 MB of monthly data, features a monthly cost of zero.
How is this possible, you might ask? How can you have what amounts to free Internet service, especially mobile service through a 4G hotspot?
The Fine Print
Let’s start explaining this story with the fine print. The free monthly plan with no contracts or commitments is exactly what it claims to be. You receive free service with a monthly data cap of 200 MB (enough to power email but not much else) and access from anywhere the NetZero 4G device can receive a signal.
The downside is that you still have to purchase the mobile hotspot in order to receive this service. That’s a $50 investment for a single-system USB modem and $100 for an eight-slot Wi-Fi device.
In addition to that, you’re facing a hard cap at a relatively small limit. 200 MB may sound like a lot, but a user can easily exceed this with just a little Web browsing and/or a few YouTube videos. This is a good option for someone who only uses the Web for occasional email and perhaps emergencies where they are required to use the Web to pay a bill, check an account, or perform other simple and low-bandwidth tasks.
Oh, and the free coverage is only available for the first year. This isn’t something you could look forward to for years to come. It’s a temporary deal intended to sell devices that can bring in upgrade sales as customers hit the caps.
It should also be noted that Clear is powering this 4G coverage. Clear, a company of which I am a customer, has some of the strictest bandwidth throttling policies I’ve ever dealt with. While the connection may be absolutely perfect, the actual speed can vary from 10 megabits down to below 56K dial-up speeds. Whether or not this throttling impacts NetZero customers remains to be seen, though I would be cautious.
Having a portable connection to the Web when your smartphone is unavailable is a big thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been somewhere and needed to pull something up that wasn’t locally stored on my laptop and been disappointed by a lack of coverage. This is one reason I signed up for Clear’s home and mobile hotspot coverage. It really does come in handy when traveling, during power outages, and even when your primary connection goes on the fritz.
It’s hard to beat free, especially when you can upgrade on a whim during months when you need more bandwidth. This would be a reasonable solution for a relative that hasn’t quite embraced the technical age, but does enjoy sending and receiving email from relatives. For them, this is a tough deal to beat.
Comparing prices offered by its competition, this is a relatively interesting proposal from a company that made its mark on the world by providing ad-supported Internet service for free.
It’s better to have an alternative and not need it than need it and not have it. You never know when you might need that quick connection while you’re traveling and can’t find a Wi-Fi spot nearby.
NetZero 4G coverage isn’t available in most areas of the US. Because it piggybacks on Clear’s 4G coverage areas, it’s only available in some large cities, with more potentially coming soon. Phoenix, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Des Moines, and some entire states are excluded from the service area.
200 MB isn’t much, but the upgraded services are reasonably priced. The purpose of NetZero offering something for nothing is to sell modems. Once you’ve purchased a modem, you’re already most of the way to an upgraded (paid) account.
If you don’t like the service, you’re stuck with the initial sticker shock of the modem. Sure, at just $100 it doesn’t exactly break the bank, but the kind of folks who could put this 200 MB to good use are probably the same ones who are rightfully pinching pennies. Low-income situations are rough, especially if you end up with something you don’t actually end up using after paying a premium to get started.
The free account only lasts for a year. You’re actually paying a monthly charge of about $4-8 depending on which modem you pick up to use the service with. Taking that into consideration, you’ll be left with a modem that you’ll need to pay to use in the future. The service is free, and arguably a lot cheaper than some competitors, but it’s only a temporary deal.
NetZero has come through for me in the past when money was tight and I had to choose between Internet service and paying the phone bill. For that reason alone I find it hard to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it does come with a relatively low cap.
A mobile hotspot can certainly come in handy for being able to put your laptop on the Web while out and about, or parked in a neighborhood while trying to find your destination on a map, or simply showing a client your site during a meeting away from the office.
Keep in mind, though, that the coverage area of NetZero’s 4G service is limited to the same coverage area Clear services. That means rural areas, small towns, and even a few major cities are currently sitting this deal out.