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FreedomPop begins public beta: 500MB of free WiMAX today, five years of Sprint LTE later

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Gallery Photo: FreedomPop WiMAX dongle and hotspot hands-on pictures
Gallery Photo: FreedomPop WiMAX dongle and hotspot hands-on pictures

"We're really trying to deliver a free internet experience, as frictionless as possible," FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols tells us. It sounds too good to be true. Starting today, FreedomPop is offering 500MB of free wireless data in major metropolitan areas in the United States. For the next two weeks, the wireless MVNO will be accepting public beta registrations and doling out Wi-Fi hotspots and USB dongles to tens of thousands of users.

There are a few catches, of course. The initial service runs on Clearwire's WiMAX network, which has a limited footprint and can be relatively slow. You'll need to put money down for your hardware: a plug-and-play dongle will require a $49 deposit, and a Wi-Fi hotspot is a $89 outlay, though the company assures us the money is fully refundable. iPod touch and iPhone 4 / 4S sleeves will be available in a matter of weeks for purchase at $99.

Someone will need to pay for all that free data, too: FreedomPop is running a freemium service, and hoping that heavy users who need multiple gigabytes per month will subsidize everyone else. For each friend you recruit to your FreedomPop network, you earn an additional 10MB of data per month, and can complete offers to gain more, from 3MB for checking out a website to a full 1.2GB for subscribing to LoJack laptop protection software for a year. FreedomPop will sell data outright, too, and is presently considering $15 for 2GB, $35 for 5GB and $60 for 10GB, with no contracts, activation or cancellation fees. There's also a tier just above free: for $2.99 a month, the company promises "prioritized data" with speeds of up to 12Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up, with no data caps or throttling. Mind you, Clear sells unlimited WiMAX for $49.99 a month.

FreedomPop doesn't plan to be a WiMAX salesman for long

Should this public beta succeed, though, FreedomPop doesn't plan to be a WiMAX salesman for long. Stokels tells us plainly: he wants to disrupt the wireless industry, to "commoditize the hell out of it," and that begins with Sprint next year. FreedomPop has a five-year agreement with Sprint to provide faster, more reliable LTE service beginning in 2013, and the company plans to offer additional hardware, including iPad dongles and even a home router, to take advantage of the opportunities. Early adopters won't be left out in the cold: they can trade in the WiMAX devices and pay the difference to get an LTE unit when they're available. Stokels says phone service is only a matter of time, too, and that the company will eventually offer a free VoIP service with a limited number of minutes using the same basic business model.

Looking at FreedomPop's first two devices, the Freedom Spot and Freedom Stick, each a rebranded Clear product, and thinking back to Clear's own failed Rover service, we have to wonder if the idea is truly viable. Wouldn't Clear have tried such an idea itself? Still, it's hard to overestimate the power of "free," and any competition in the cellular data market, particularly LTE, is more than welcome right now.