Free Wireless Internet? Yes!

Category: Wireless

A reader asks: 'Is there a way to get free wireless Internet access? My budget is limited, so ideally I'd like a solution that works both at home and with my mobile phone.' Read on to learn about free wifi -- it's not just in coffee shops anymore...

How to Get Free Wireless Internet

Everyone knows you can get a free wifi connection at your local Starbucks, the public library, and possibly even at your dentist's office. Using free wifi can save you money by helping to limit the amount of data you consume on your smartphone, especially now that "unlimited" mobile data plans are becoming a thing of the past.

But it's not very convenient if you have to run to the nearest coffee shop to check your email or do a quick Google search on a free mobile hotspot. And if you don't have a clueless neighbor who's failed to put a password on their wifi, your options for free internet access at home are slim to nil. At least until recently, that is.

Fortunately, there are now several wireless Internet access providers that are offering free wifi connections. There are some limitations on the free service, as you might imagine. First, service is not available in all locations. You'll have to check a coverage map to see if your town or neighborhood is in a wifi coverage zone. Second, your free monthly data allowance will be modest. And third, you'll have to purchase a little gadget that costs about $40 to make the magic work. But if you're willing to abide that one-time fee, and you live in an area where they provide coverage, you really can get free wireless Internet, month after month, at home and around town.
Free Wireless Internet

FreedomPop is a wireless Internet service provider that offers a free wifi plan. They offer 500 MB of free high speed (4G) wireless internet per month. (You'll get 2 GB free your first month.) Check the FreedomPop coverage map to see if your area is covered.

As I mentioned above, you do need to buy a little gadget that pulls in the cellular data signal from the air, and converts it to a wifi signal that your phone, tablet, laptop or desktop can use. This is a one-time fee, there is no monthly charge to rent the device. The Freedom Stick Bolt ($39) is ideal for laptop or desktop computers (PC or Mac) and plugs into any USB port for instant 4G wireless internet. There are no cables needed, and you never have to charge the device. The downside is that you're limited to one device at a time. Note that you must click the Products link on the FreedomPop home page, then scroll down to find the Freedom Stick Bolt.

The Freedom Spot 803s ($69) is a portable 4G hotspot that can provide wifi to up to six devices at once. The Freedom Spot has a battery life of about 6 hours, and is a good choice for both home and mobile use. If you have a wifi-only iPad or Kindle, this will enable you to get online with those devices while you're away from home. As long as you're in a FreedomPop coverage area, of course.

Keep in mind that your data allowance is not unlimited. If you're a casual user who just wants to check email, do a bit of web surfing, or update your Facebook page once in a while, you might be able to stay under the 500 MB/month limit. My wife and I both have smartphones, and I was surprised to learn that our average combined data usage is only about 1.2 GB per month, or about 600 MB each. We both use our phones for email, web, Google maps, news, weather, and a variety of apps. So it's not impossible for a single user to stay under the 500 MB allowance. If your needs are greater, you can purchase extra data at reasonable prices. Unused data will roll over from month to month, if you have a paid plan.

NetZero has a similar free wireless Internet offering, but their data allowance is not as generous, and coverage is not as robust as the FreedomPop offering. (Both FreedomPop and Netzero use the Clearwire WiMAX service, along with the Sprint network to supplement it's coverage.) With NetZero's free wifi offering, you get 200 MB of free 4G data. And of course you'll need the USB adapter or hotspot device. The NetZero 3G Stick ($49) is aimed at laptop and netbook users, while the NetZero Mifi 500 ($129) is what you'll need if you want to connect mobile devices. The Hotspot supports up to 10 wireless connections, and is rated at six hours of battery life.

If you need more than 200 MB of data, NetZero offers a Basic plan for $9.95/month with 500 MB, and a Plus plan for $19.95 with a 1 GB data allowance. Unused data does not roll over from month to month. Also, in the small print of the NetZero pricing page, I found a notice that "Access to the Free plan from a specific device expires (and may not be renewed) after twelve months." That means the free ride is good for one year, but it sounds like you could buy another "device" and continue.

It's cool that FreedomPop and NetZero offer free wireless internet service, albeit with limits. But they're not operating as a charity. They hope that you'll like the free service and eventually upgrade to a paid plan. And there's nothing evil about the "freemium" business model. Even on the paid plans, the FreedomPop and NetZero service is cheaper than what you'd pay if you got a mobile hotspot gadget from Verizon, Sprint or AT&T.

The upside for going with one of the Big Three providers is that you'll get coverage in more areas, especially on the Verizon network. But if your wifi needs are modest, or you just want to minimize the amount of 3G/4G data you use on your mobile plan, the free wifi services I've mentioned can be a money saver.

Options For Truly Free Wireless Internet

Caution and awareness are key when surfing the Web via free public wireless hotspots. You could be exposing everything on your device to nearby snoops or hackers. See my article The Problem With Free Wifi Hotspots to pick up some tips on wireless hotspot security.

I'm sure some people reading this will be disappointed that I promised "free wireless internet" but there was a cost for the hotspot device. So let me repeat what I mentioned at the beginning of the article. There are plenty of places where you can go for 100% free wifi, if you're willing to venture out your front door. Libraries, coffee shops, hotels, airports, and over 11,500 McDonalds restaurants across the USA offer free wifi. All you need is a laptop, tablet or smartphone with wifi capability. You can even stay all day, or until the manager gives you the evil eye, and suggests that you might want to be moving along.

But free wifi is not limited to indoor establishments. Many cities offer free wifi in certain outdoor areas. Check out the Municipal Wireless Network. Other hotspot directories you can browse through are JiWire's Wi-Fi Finder and the The Wi-Fi FreeSpot Directory.

JiWire also offers a free app you can use on on your mobile device to search for hotspots. Android users, check out Wifi Finder. iPhone/iPad users, see Free Wi-Fi Finder.

Your Internet service provider may include access to mobile hotspots. If you have home internet service from Comcast, Time Warner, Brighthouse, or Cox, your smartphone or laptop can access a network of free wifi hotspots when you're out and about. Verizon has a free wifi offering for FiOS customers, but it's limited to laptops running Windows Vista or higher. Check with your ISP for details.

And of course there's your dumb neighbor who forgot to secure his wireless router. In certain places, though, it's illegal to tap into an unsecured wireless network. And in ALL places, it's a bad idea to leave your wireless signal unsecured. Read my story about The WiFi Security Mistake You Must Avoid to learn why.

Do you have any tips to offer on free wireless Internet access? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Free Wireless Internet? Yes!"

Posted by:

Mike Brose
04 Sep 2015

I live in the country, you know, cows, corn fields, occasional chickens and hogs. If you want to tap into my router at 55 mph, feel free to do so.

Posted by:

Carl Lipscomb
04 Sep 2015

Cool article I had no idea about net zero and Freedompop. They only problem is I don't think I can stay under the 500MB😊

Posted by:

04 Sep 2015

A while back I was experimenting with different WiFi providers & signed up with NetZero for $20 or $30 per month, for X (I forget) GBs per month.
It was not enough & called to cancel the subscription (no penalty).
They wanted to keep me & offered unlimited for $3 per month, not bad.
Still paying it.

Posted by:

04 Sep 2015

Very informative and helpful.

Posted by:

04 Sep 2015

FreedomPop also comes with an automatic $9.99 renewal fee after their first months "premium" service unless you cancel it. When you give them your financial information be sure to cancel before 30 days. I assume it is a hassle to stop the service, also...

Posted by:

04 Sep 2015

This is very informative, but as we can see free unfortunately comes at a cost somewhere.

There are some places free still means free. Where I live the city offers free Wireless internet through out the downtown and in parts that are heavily populated. This works out well when I am visiting an elderly friend uptown and I wanted to show her some family pictures, or even stream some videos from YouTube.

Posted by:

Al. S
04 Sep 2015

With my T-Mobile Account I can stream 10 GB on my cell phone, and for $10.00 more a month I get faster speed up from 4 to 5. All for $72.00 per month. Also in most if not all States it is against the law to steal a neighbors or any unsecured WiFi Signal without permission. I would et that in writing, just in case.

Posted by:

04 Sep 2015

I had the NetZero hotspot for about 2 years, but reception was very spotty. I'm not sure what carrier they use in my area, but I couldn't connect at my house unless I hung the device out of a top floor window on one side of the house and hoped for the best... Sometimes it did work, most of the time it didn't. It did function in some other areas I would occasionally traveled to, but not enough to justify the monthly cost (the data allowance was barely enough to cover my emails, much less the facebook time I needed access for work). And I live in what is supposed to me a relatively major city in my county (it's the county seat). And as for McDonald's, they have signs posted that there is a 30 minute limit "while consuming (McDonald's) food." We got a way to go yet for true wifi coverage.

Posted by:

04 Sep 2015

Interesting! Just visited the linked page and by the time I got to the "Choose your device" page, the $39.99 one was not shown. Only the $69.99 and the $100-and-something devices were available! I'm still tempted though!

Posted by:

Jay R
05 Sep 2015

I attempted to look at the map and see if I might be covered. Freedompoop would not show me a map without my email address. If the service is not here, then what ever could be the reason that they would want my email address? Hmmmmmmmmmmm?????????

Posted by:

05 Sep 2015

That was truly great information. I will certainly keep that in mind. In other words I'm pondering If I really can benefit from it as a backup system.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2015

Good article, Bob, but nothing is "free" - somebody else is paying for it - I would guess in hopes of providing a service that might enhance their business, or in the case of the library, taxpayer provided. So if you're stopping in at the local coffee house to check your email, why not buy a cup of coffee to say thanks!

Posted by:

T. Tompkins
07 Sep 2015

I am another user who lives among the cows and cornfields, and internet connectivity is limited to dial up, Verizon or the US Cellular broadband network, and satellite (Wild Blue, Hughes Net).

As a matter of desperation, I ordered a Freedom Pop device, with the small amount of "free" access - only to discover that contrary to the coverage their map showed, I was NOT in the range for free coverage, since it had to be at least 3G.

I had ordered the device through a 'daily deals' kind of site, and lo and behold, found a charge on my credit card from Freedom Pop for a subscription I had not even ordered. The only way that FP could have gotten my info was via the site that sold the device.

It took several emails and perseverance to get the charge reversed, the "charm" being when I told them I would simply have the credit card reverse the charge, and then would report them to the BBB.

Lesson here: be very, very careful what you sign up for, as usual... free is rarely free.

Posted by:

07 Sep 2015

I subscribed to Freedom Pop about a year and a half ago. The payments were fine, about 10.00 a month for high speed internet. Then I started getting billed for using 400MB every 15 minutes. I don't know where this figure was coming from but it came to 1600MB an hour. I started getting billed 10.00 a day. I guess there was a password that I was supposed to configure in the original setup which I didn't do and somehow someone hacked into my computer. I canceled the service because I couldn't get through to the company to find out what I did wrong.

Posted by:

07 Sep 2015

Hey Bob great info :-)
can anyone tell me: if i buy a Freedom Spot 803s hotspot, will i be able to use the hotspot to access other 3g/4g providers?
thanx, Louie

Posted by:

Monte Crooks
24 Sep 2015

Is it just because we're so rural, or does it just take so much bandwidth anywhere? We do well to keep our monthly Verizon MiFi to JUST 12 GB! How in the world could we ever get by with 500 MB? Do people really use so little, could I be doing something wrong?

Posted by:

Willie Beard
20 Dec 2016

I too had FreedomPop and it was a good service but one day I checked my bank statement and learned I was being charged $15 a month sometimes 2 or 3 times in the same month. I just voided my credit card and found a paid service.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Free Wireless Internet? Yes! (Posted: 4 Sep 2015)
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