NetZero made a name for itself in the late nineties by offering free ad-supported dialup Internet access before turning to a low-cost model (still available for dialup and and basic DSL). NetZero is returning to its free/freemium roots with today’s announcement of a contract-free 4G service. The service offers several tiers of data use with the first one being free beyond purchasing a 4G device.
While intriguing, the free service tier definitely illustrates the “you get what you pay for” addage. Some of the other tiers are attractive, but there are some downsides and, quite frankly, a Verizon 4G iPad may be a much smarter investment in the long run.
Let’s start with the basics.
NetZero is offering two hardware options – a $49.95 USB 4G modem (Mac compatible) and a $99.95 personal hotspot device that supports up to eight devices at a time.
Next up are the plans. While there is a free plan, it offers only 200MB of data per month (which you can burn through in minutes using an iPad, iPod touch, or MacBook). You can also only stay on the free plan for one year and you must use that plan for all 12 months of that year consecutively to keep it – if you upgrade to one of the paid plans for a month because you’re on a business trip or vacation, you can’t go back to the free plan, though you can switch to the lowest cost plan (9.95/month with 500MB) or stop service altogether and restart it at a later date using one of the paid plans.
The other plans aren’t particularly bad choices for limited use. They’re similar to what you’d get from other carriers with similar hardware options. That said, they are a little bit pricier than the month-to-month 4G/LTE plans that Verizon offers to 4G iPad owners (and roughly similar to what AT&T offers).
The big catch isn’t about devices or billing – it’s about the network. NetZero is providing service using ClearWire’s WiMax network. If you live in (or regularly travel to) one of the 82 markets where ClearWire serves WiMax, NetZero’s offering may be an option worth consideration.
If you live anyplace else, however, this service really won’t be an option. ClearWire is moving from WiMax service to LTE as its 4G solution. ClearWire has affirmed its commitment to the current WiMax network and users but not to expanding it to new markets. At this time, NetZero doesn’t offer any LTE devices and it isn’t clear when (or if) they will in the future.
Overall carriers are not pushing contract-free mobile broadband options, particularly 4G options, because contract plans deliver more revenue. This makes NetZero’s service worth singling out because it offers a 4G service with range of data plans and the ability to change plans or discontinue use (temporarily or permanently) at any time without penalty.
Of course, those are also hallmarks of the iPad data plans. Verizon even goes so far as to offer plans with up to 10GB of data and all its plans include the ability to use your 4G iPad as a hotspot. Verizon also has a much larger 4G/LTE network that recently reached 200 markets. From an overall service and monthly cost basis, you’re better off buying a Verizon 4G iPad than subscribing to NetZero.
Of course, the lowest cost 4G iPad is more than six times the cost of NetZero’s personal hotspot – but you also get a lot more than just a hotspot for that price.