HOWTO: Free Wireless Internet
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.
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.
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...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 5 Apr 2013
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- HOWTO: Free Wireless Internet (Posted: 5 Apr 2013)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved