A few days ago, a friend of mine walked into work and said, “I just ordered a FreedomPop. Have you heard of them?” I only somewhat sarcastically asked if he ever read my blog.
In a previous post, I described some of the moving parts that could be put together into free cell phone service. Possibly the biggest chunk is a WiFi-to-cell hotspot called the FreedomPop. The hotspot per se isn’t new; the business model is.
FreedomPop provides “free” internet access. You pay $89 for a refundable “security deposit” on the hotspot device, and then you get 500 MB of free data per month. You can get more by linking with friends (although I wasn’t able to find a way to do that without yielding my email login info, which I wouldn’t do) or by “viewing offers”, which I didn’t try.
500 MB isn’t a lot of data, but consider that the lowest tier of the iPhone AT&T data plan was only 250 MB. Since I’m on WiFi at work and home, 250 MB per month is plenty for a little light surfing and email reading while waiting for my sushi order.
Anyway, I’ve had a FreedomPop sleeve on order for a couple of months, but their ship dates have stayed “4-6 weeks” for some time, so I was surprised that the hotspot version was on sale, for immediate delivery. I immediately ordered one, and sprang for the fastest delivery, which was only $15.
A couple of days later, I received a nicely packaged black box that looked like it would contain a large watch. As a tech device, the hotspot is delightful. It’s small, pleasantly heavy, and smoothly rounded. With blinking colored lights. It also has a soft-touch coating so it’s a pleasure to hold as well.
After glancing over the instructions, I powered up the hotspot, connected to it with my iPhone, and changed the password and SSID. Only then did I look to see if it had a connection to the net. It did not.
This didn’t come as a surprise to me. The coverage map clearly indicates that my home town isn’t even close to any coverage. When ordering the hotspot, the site made it clear that I wouldn’t get a signal, but I chose the “go ahead anyway” option. I work in Cambridge, however, which the map shows WiMax coverage as thick as peanut butter.
I had to wait to try it out at work, or at least on my commute in. I fired up the hotspot and kept an eye on it. When the ”4G” light glowed a steady green at a convenient spot, I pulled into a parking lot to try things out.
I loaded up Daring Fireball, which is a pretty lightweight page in terms of bandwidth. It loaded very quickly, so I tried the New York Times page. That was fast too. Seriously fast. Telling “how fast” was a job for Speedtest.
That’s not bad.
I ran Speedtest a couple more times on the way into work, and the download speed remained in the multi-megabit per second range.
Once at work in Cambridge, I was surprised to find that my FreedomPop couldn’t get a 4G connection, even when placed at windows on various sides of the building. Old mill building bricks blocking 4G? Other buildings nearby casting 4G shadows? It’s not that big a deal, since I can get on WiFi at work, but it’s still surprising.
I got another surprise when checking my account on the freedompop.com site. I had already burned through 56 MB, or 11% of my data allowance for the month.
On the way home I stopped a couple of more times for more testing. This time I tried using Acrobits Softphone to make a phone call. The dialog came up indicating that Google Voice should be calling me back, but it never did. I tried a few times, but had no luck completing a call. This will require more investigation.
Visiting freedompop.com while connected to the hotspot yields a specialized page that is similar to the hotspot admin page. One thing that should be on this page that I couldn’t find: the current month’s data usage. That information is available in your account page, if you log in via a connection that isn’t through the hotspot.
For my other testing, I fired up Podcasts and listened to the latest episode of Hypercritical during the rest of my commute home. It played the whole way home without a hitch, even through areas that have no 4G coverage, so Podcasts must have downloaded the entire episode by that point. Given Friday afternoon traffic, it’s likely I was stopped in a 4G area long enough for Podcasts to grab the whole file.
I received another surprise when I got home and checked my data usage. I had used a total of 232 MB, or 46% of my monthly data allotment! I’m not sure what could have caused that much data usage. The VoIP calls didn’t go through, as far as I could tell. Yes, my friend John Siracusa is long-winded, but that episode is only 53 MB.
I can theorize that when my iPhone saw it was on WiFi (as opposed to a cell data connection) that it did other stuff, like perhaps downloading other podcasts, but that’s just a theory.
The FreedomPop performs as advertised. It provides a fast internet connection, in areas of coverage. Sadly, the coverage is definitely lacking, at least in my stomping grounds. Also, the amount of data I used came as a surprise. Also, I was unable to use the hotspot for the one task I was most interested in: VoIP calls.
Don’t forget though, that the FreedomPop service is free. “Free” goes a long way.