HOWTO: Free Wireless Internet

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 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 mobile hotspot to check your email or do a quick Google search. 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. For customers with mobile phones, they offer 500 MB of free high speed (4G) wireless internet per month. (You'll get 2 GB free your first month.) Home users can get 1 GB of data (up to 1.5Mbps speeds) for free. 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.

The Freedom Spot Photon ($89) is a portable 4G hotspot that can provide wifi to up to eight devices at once. The Photon 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 covarage 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, but any unused data will not roll over from month to month.


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, but FreedomPop also taps into 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 4G Stick ($49) is aimed at laptop and netbook users, while the NetZero 4G Hotspot ($99) is what you'll need if you want to connect mobile devices. The Hotspot supports up to 8 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

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 free wifi. 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. For example, if you live in the Chelsea district of New York City, Google provides free wifi to several dozen square blocks. Also in NYC, you can get a free wireless signal in Bryant Park, or Times Square.

Many other cities have free wifi zones, which you can explore in the Municipal Wireless Network or the Open WiFi Spots directory. Other hotspot directories you can browse through are:

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 "HOWTO: Free Wireless Internet"

Posted by:

Dennis Foster
05 Apr 2013

I checked the FreedomPop site and even with the "free" service, there is a minimum $2.00+/mo charge and advance fee of around $100.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't see any such fees mentioned on the FreedomPop site. Can you be more specific about what you're seeing, and the URL of the page(s) it's where it's found?


Posted by:

elaine berkopec
05 Apr 2013

Would this work with an internet-ready tv?


Posted by:

Robert Sexton
05 Apr 2013

I am really running late and probably should not ask this until I have had more time to research this myself, but thanks for the lead about FreedomPop as I never heard of them and I live in a coverage area! Very nice indeed! However, the USB stick only speaks of use in a laptop, and I would be without question wanting it for a tablet. Does anyone know if it would work in both an iPad and Android tablet (Acer A200)?

Since I am running late, I will be checking their site again later for those very same answers, but kudos on this technology! I can't see this failing at all, but maybe putting the cellular companies in line with their outrageous pricing structure that I refuse to pay. :-)

Thanks Bob!
Robert


Posted by:

Herman Miller
05 Apr 2013

Could not get free monthly service with FreedomPop after purchase of the $39 device. It was greyed out. There was only free offer for one month and thereafter they would charge $17.99. I keep trying a number of times but no luck.


Posted by:

Misterfish
05 Apr 2013

Here in Europe we have some cracking deals on internet access. Amongst others, in the UK the BT company, and in France SFR, offer mobile access across the country for their own subscribers. How it works is that every home router sends two wifi signals, one dedicated to your home, the other is a public signal.
Using your subscriber name and password, you can access anywhere there is a neighbour using their service (pretty much everywhere in towns).
So if you are travelling in France or Britain, find a pal suscribing to one of their services, ask 'em for their public ID and password (different from their home one) and you have free mobile wifi. Good eh?


Posted by:

James
05 Apr 2013

...and so I went to the Freedom Pop Web site to order the Freedom Spot - Photon. The price for the device is okay but this is what stops me...

Casual 2GB - 100% FREE for the first month. This trial is only available for a limited time. You can cancel your trial anytime on site or by calling customer support. You'll continue to receive 2 GB every month for only $17.99 after your trial period expires.

Your subscription begins when you click Activate. Cancel service anytime by contacting support. By clicking Activate, you authorize FreedomPop to charge the Monthly Total provided above at the beginning of each subscription period. You can change your plan at anytime. See Terms of Use for subscription details.

So do I still get the free 500MB/month after I cancel?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm pretty sure you'd have to cancel, and then sign up for the Free (500MB) plan.



Posted by:

Howie
05 Apr 2013

Stepping through the signup menu at FreedomPop, it appears you are defaulted into their $17.99 for 2GB per month plan. Presumably you can cancel after the first month, which is free, but you use a credit card to sign up. I'm suspicious of offers that you have to proactively cancel after you've signed up.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, that is the pre-selected offer. But if you want to start with the 500MB Free plan, you can select it instead.


Posted by:

Joe
05 Apr 2013

Although they don't offer a free option Virgin does have a $5 a month package. You can buy a one unit stick, or multi-unit module.

The reason I like Virgin is they don't have a contract so I can activate my account when I travel, and I can password secure my access too.


Posted by:

Coover
05 Apr 2013

Neither service is available at my mountain home 90 miles east of Los Angeles and I doubt if they will ever reach my community. Heck, only one of the major cell companies even offer service here, and it is very, very spotty. You'd think in a community with 5000 residents that there would be interest by major companies to come here, but there are no chain stores here, though there is a sign on a vacant lot that "Family Dollar" will be building a store at that location. We have no fast food restaurants, not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sign that this community is being ignored. The nearest McDonalds, for example is about 10 miles away, and the ubiquitous Radio Shack is even further. There is a Starbucks about 12 miles away, but it strangely does not have the internet. It's as if the 5000 persons here are being ignored, even though this is not a poor minority community.

We shall continue to be ignored and, unfortunately, we shall have no free internet in my community. I do understand that there is a (one) computer wired to the internet at our small library, but there are no other locations. Fortunately, the local cable company does offer internet, but it is not free and it is certainly not wireless.

Oh well, living in paradise can have it's problems, but I think I'll stay anyway.


Posted by:

Robert
06 Apr 2013

I've had the NetZero Hotspot for about a year now and have found it useful, though not outstanding. Like mentioned, the "free" use is limited to a 12 month period, after that you pay the basic monthly rate. One catch is that if you exceed your data limit at any time (including the free period) NZ kicks you into that level of paid service. So far coverage has been okay, and for checking email or the like on the road or in a hotel that likes to charge $10/day for internet it's a money saver.

I think they are doing the right thing with the free offer in one major respect. Finding out if you get coverage at all. Beats signing up for a contract plan only to find out you can't get coverage. On the subject of coverage, it is interesting to note that while I can decent coverage in most of the commercial buildings I find myself in (like hotels and convention centers - although basement meeting rooms are as dead to hotspots as they are to cell phones...), I find NZ coverage at home next to non-existant, even though I can get decent cell reception from at least two local carriers (ATT and T-Mobile). I've had to go to the extreme of almost literally hanging the device out a second floor window in one corner of the house to get any signal at all. The other problem is that despite my trying to keep the unit fully charged it's almost always dead or nearly so when I try to use it (or it doesn't last long, probably due to the weak signal coverage). Plugging it in to a USB port on my netbook is SOP.

It's still a nice, relatively inexpensive backup plan for when I need to check (or send) that important email or access cloud storage when I'm at a remote site. And the 8-device capability of the "hotspot" can keep any other members of the work group I may be with up and running as well (though you have to watch that data limit a lot more closely...). I'm satisfied enough to keep it, at least until something better comes along.


Posted by:

JJ
06 Apr 2013

Sadly FreedomPop isn't available for your subscribers in Australia.
But there's always Maccas at least :)


Posted by:

Herman Miller
10 Apr 2013

You responded to Joe saying as to the 500MB Free plan "you can select it instead". No, you cannot. At least in my experience. I sent an earlier comment on this and now I tried it again. The 500MB Free is shown as an option, but it is greyed out and cannot be selected. Could it be available in just some areas and not in mine? Just a thought because you and I have a different experience.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I know it's looks like it's greyed out, but it's really not. There's a radio button (looks like a small circle) in each box that you can select to change the option.


Posted by:

Jane
14 Jun 2013


I am 76 on a fixed income. Don't have TV but constantly use internet for research, news etc. I now have a Verizon air card at $65.00 a month because I had a business where I had to look up items while at an auction, shopping etc. I seldom do that but I love the freedom to be in my car or visiting and be able to get on my laptop any where anytime. I also use it for my home computer. Can I get anything less expensive?


Posted by:

Ken Sweeney
03 Sep 2013

have.you heard of samba?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Do you mean the Argentinian national dance, the Brazilian musical genre, or the software package? As far as I know, none of them are related to free wireless internet service.


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