FreedomPop: Great idea that needs a better network

Shaw reviews the FreedomPop Photon.

FreedomPop Photon

Credit: FreedomPop

The scoop: FreedomPop Photon, by FreedomPop, about $100. Free for 500MB of data per month; with other plans ranging from $18 per month (2GB) up to $28.99 per month (4GB).

What is it? The Photon is a hockey puck-size device similar to Mi-Fi devices by Verizon (Jetpack) and AT&T Wireless (Liberate), providing mobile workers with 4G data access for mobile devices through a Wi-Fi connection (connect your laptop, phone or tablet via Wi-Fi, then enjoy 4G data access from there). FreedomPop utilizes the Clearwire WiMax network for its WAN data, unlike 4G LTE on these other devices (the company says it will offer 4G LTE access later this year).

[ REVIEWS: AT&T MiFi Liberate mobile hotspot | Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE mobile hotspot ]

Why it's cool: After you buy the device (FreedomPop also offers home broadband devices in addition to the Photon), you get 500MB of data access for free, without a requirement for a monthly data plan. With other carriers, you pay a monthly fee whether you use the device or not -- with FreedomPop, if you don't use the device, you aren't stuck with the monthly fee. You can upgrade to premium offerings from FreedomPop that offer more data, but if you are just planning on doing some on-the-go Web browsing or checking email, and if you don't travel a lot, this offering is worth a look.

Another unique feature of FreedomPop is the ability for users to earn additional free data. By completing offers (signing up for other services) or referring friends and colleagues to the service (called "Freedom Friends"), users can earn 50MB of extra data per friend. The service can scan Gmail, MSN, Yahoo and AOL contacts, or you can directly invite people through their email address.

The plan also lets you share some of your extra data. Let's say you don't travel that month -- you can donate 20MB, 50MB or 100MB of data to your friends who might need some extra that month. In addition, if you're getting close to your limit, you can request data from your friends. This social aspect of sharing data is a great idea.

For an extra $2 per month, FreedomPop can alert you if you're getting close to your data limits (Overages are charged at $0.02 per megabyte on the free plans; or $0.01 per megabyte on premium accounts). In addition, you can pay an extra $3 per month for its Protection Plus offering, which offers free modem replacement and direct access to FreedomPop technical support teams.

Some caveats: The biggest complaint I have with the service is the network access. In my tests, the Clearwire WiMax network is much slower than the 4G LTE networks I've tried. In my first test, the Photon unit sent to me was defective and could barely access the network; a second unit could access the network, but only gave me an average of 6Mbps of download speed, and about 1.3Mbps of upload speeds. I could access the network from work in Framingham, Mass., but there was no network coverage at my home. I couldn't get a network signal in Tucson, Ariz., either, during a work trip.

Bottom line: FreedomPop has a great idea in terms of casual 4G data access and giving users the ability to share extra data with friends/colleagues. If they can provide this service on a 4G network with greater coverage and faster speeds, it will be a lifesaver for those once-a-month mobile workers who only need "better than hotel" Internet access when they travel.

Grade: 2.5 stars (out of five)

Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow him on Twitter: @shawkeith.

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