Thursday, May 29, 2014

FreedomPop "free" plan is a bit dishonest

I've recently been exploring the world of FreedomPop on behalf of a friend who is going through a really rough patch in his life. FreedomPop sells WiFi hotspot devices that supposedly get 500MB of data per month for free. The only thing to pay for is the device itself, which will set someone back about $50. It sounds awesome, but that's really all it is.

The old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" definitely applies here. This plan is marketed as 500MB of data per month for free "forever" (the 'forever' is implied). Even 3 years of use (i.e. until the lithium ion battery wears out) would be enough to help my friend out in a significant way. I was willing to play guinea pig for this interesting service because I also have some potential use for it.

So, I went and bought the device, which set me back a little over $50 (after tax). Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more. And pretty much forgot about it until it randomly showed up about a month and a half later. In addition, these devices are "refurbished", but who really cares about that as long as they work? At any rate, the extensive waiting is the first warning sign that something might be fishy here.

The device that arrives is a "Sprint (now Netgear) Overdrive Pro (3G/4G)" hotspot. The free plan claims to run only on 4G (you have to pay to get 3G), which is technically accurate. What FreedomPop fails to mention up front is that it only runs on 4G WiMAX and that the device has no support for 4G LTE. So you can be bathed in 4G LTE service all day long but the device will never connect to it. It's a tad misleading as users think they will be connecting to 4G regardless of the type of 4G service. Unless a user is intimately familiar with all of the various forms of 4G out there, it is unreasonable to expect them to understand the difference between 4G WiMAX, 4G LTE, and other 4G variants.

Additionally, the device has to be manually configured before it will function properly. This may be beyond the skill set of some users. The 3G PRL and 3G profile have to be updated via the admin before it will connect to 3G. Again, 3G isn't free but it will connect once the PRL and profile are updated. The first time I tried this, the device had fits and I had to perform a soft reset (hold the reset button for six seconds while it is powered on) and try again before it succeeded the second time. Also, firmware updates have to be applied via the admin before 4G WiMAX will function at optimal settings. That last part is tricky because it looks like a large batch of refurbished devices, including mine, were modified in a way that prevents updates from being applied to the device. It appears that someone intentionally changed the SKU of each device from SKU 1453010 to SKU 1453012. The device firmware checks the SKU and checksums of a new firmware before applying it. So multiple users are getting the message "The update cannot proceed. There is a SKU version mismatch." when they upload the latest firmware.

(It may(!) be possible to alter the SKU of the device via a configuration file import, but the importer appears to verify a checksum, so that creates a new problem since the configuration file can't simply be edited with a text editor. The "simple" solution to that problem is to find someone with a SKU 1453010 device and import their configuration, which should correct the problem and allow the firmware update to proceed. I am still working on this approach, so don't do anything here. I'm willing to brick my device at this point.)

Also, Sprint is terminating WiMAX service in 2015. Anyone on the free plan currently able to get 4G WiMAX service will suddenly have a paperweight unless they sign up and pay for 3G service. 3G still enjoys a wider adoption rate, but, as anyone who has used 3G knows, it is rather sluggish.

Basically this reads as:

Warehouse operator: "Oh man, we've got all these devices sitting around our warehouse and Sprint is going to make them basically useless in under a year. We need to move this inventory out right now."

Marketing director: "I know! We can just give users WiMAX for free but not tell them about it until they've received the device and try to use it. We'll just advertise it as a 'free service with 4G only' because people will love the idea of 'free 4G'. We'll get rid of the devices and make some money."

It's definitely a brilliant strategy for moving inventory that no one will want soon enough. In addition, the way it is being marketed also phrases it such that people can be misled to believing that they will also get 3G service for free, which they won't. It is a bit dishonest to do that to people. In particular, this plan is being advertised to people who are classified as "low income" as being a way to get free Internet access "everywhere" they go (the 'everywhere' is implied). If 4G WiMAX is readily available in the area, it might be a viable temporary solution for someone who has no Internet access. It is also potentially useful as a device for setting up a quick WiFi LAN between two WiFi enabled devices vs. messing around with ad-hoc networks. So it isn't really a scam, but the way it is marketed isn't completely honest either - being especially unfair to low income individuals and families who can't afford a $50 loss.

If it had worked out (i.e. 4G LTE capable), this plan would be a game changer in the industry. It would force every telecom to finally lower their rates to sane levels. If you pay more than $10/month for unlimited text, talk, and data, then you are being ripped off and are paying too much for service.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for the analysis...and a correct one...of the dishonesty of FreedomPop advertising free data on a 4G WiMax network about to go out of service, making devices worthless unless you spend $4 a month or more on 3G access. I used to get 3G access for free as well with my Sierra 802S, but the rules have now been changed and I was told I had to buy 3G service, or have a paperweight. My hotsport shows I have 2-3 bars of 4G access but it no longer works, and after spending an hour on the phone with FreedomPop and reprogramming their systems and my hotspot to run on 3G service, it still comes up with only a log-in screen denying me 3G access.

    At this point RedPocket's 4G SIM Cards running on T-Mobile's network for as little as $5 a month for 500MB (via their Mobile Internet Starter Kit), or $10 a month for 1GB, through their low-cost data SIMs used with T-Mobile hotspots or other unlocked GSM hotspots, are a better option for most, delivering better speeds and coverage.

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  2. My Overdrive pro hotspot used to work with 4G ( I have the free plan). But since a month or two ago, it no longer works. It shows 4G connected but whenever I try to use my laptop for internet, the browser pops up a window saying I need to enable my 3G connection, which is not free.

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  3. it's completely dishonest now since 4G WiMAX doesn't even work.

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  4. I suspect more people will show up with similar comments. 4G WiMAX is dead but this device is being sold to unsuspecting customers. You *can* get 500MB of 3G data but that's not very useful except for really short trips with non-network devices (e.g. tablet/laptop) AND the 3G data plan is *NOT* free (but it also isn't a $50/month) AND you still have to flash the ROM of most of the devices to get it to function properly (i.e. requires some tech-savvy). I still see some value but potential users should not expect a lot. FreedomPOP was probably given a sweet deal on a warehouse full of refurb devices and had to move them as fast as possible to recover the cost before WiMAX expired. The only way to do that really is to dupe potential customers into buying those devices through false advertising (i.e. not being completely and totally upfront about all the caveats) and then they try to sneak in all sorts of "upgrades" to turn a bigger profit. The part that's super irritating is that most of those people buying these devices are low-income folks because that is their target audience (they are coming to FreedomPOP's website from other websites for low-income Internet access). My goal with this device was to evaluate its use for a friend who is in the low-income category of folks out there - I could take the financial hit if it was a dud device, my friend, however, could not. The FreedomPOP business model reminds me of the multi-billion dollar payday loan industry's business model: The latter are a bunch of vultures who prey on the poor. Maybe that's not FreedomPOP's intention but it's certainly how I've come to perceive them - they unfortunately leave a rather bad taste in my mouth. Honesty about the device's capabilities and the termination of WiMAX would have been a better, albeit not as profitable, policy.

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  5. 4G wimax is still working in my area. But as mentioned in other posts, freedompop overdrive doesn't work anymore taking me to "upgrade to 3g" page, eventhough I have the device in 4G only mode. I also have freedomopop usb stick (bolt) and freedompop 4g home router, and both are still working fine and they are 4G wimax devices. I was hoping freedompop support can fix the issue, but judging by other people's input it looks to be lost cause.

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  6. For hotspot devices, the free plan includes WiMax and LTE but not 3G ($3.99/Month). You specifically bought a device that doesn't support LTE so of course you would not be able to use LTE. For instance, if you order a MiFi 500 LTE, the 1GB Free Plan includes full LTE Support. Also, I have 17 non-LTE USB Hotspots from FreedomPop that are WiMax-only but I got them all for free. Don't really see FreedomPop as fishy. You just specifically bought a device that doesn't support LTE. That's like buying an S2 and wondering why you're not getting LTE signal.

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    1. Wrong. At the time of the blog post, FreedomPop billed its service as something you got for free for life. They also claimed on their website the device would work in my area over both WiMax and 3G and indicated that BOTH of those services were included in the package. It turned out that only WiMax is free and the device would NOT work at all in my area without enabling 3G service, which obviously cost more money, but nowhere in the sign up process was ANY of that information included. That is truly dishonest and despicable, especially when coupled with the next paragraph.

      The bigger problem is that FreedomPop also targeted low-income folks with the exact same non-information and non-functional devices, which is always an incredibly sleazy practice akin to the payday loan(shark) industry that targets low-income folks to bury them in debt. I, fortunately, can handle getting dinged on occasion, so I tested FreedomPop out on behalf of someone else who is in a severely low-income bracket. It's a shame that the service doesn't work as advertised. What irritates me is that there are plenty of people out there who are low-income and getting bilked by this non-service with money they can't afford to spend. You're a clueless, spoiled, rich kid in California, so here's a reality wake-up call: Some people are poor! They can't even afford $3.99/month. Think long and hard about that for a while. To have any business come along and exploit such folks is truly contemptible.

      I want clarity and honesty from the entire cellular industry and the FreedomPop approach is among the worst and most abhorrent behavior that I've seen. They intentionally targeted low-income folks with a non-functional product. I don't know how much worse a business can get but that's really below the belt.

      I'm not approving your other posts that are in the comments moderation queue. Your comments feel too shill-ish, being in the same vein as your post above. Your comments also indicate a significant level of cluelessness of the world around you. This is my blog. I can choose whatever posts and comments I publish.

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  7. Being poor and looking for lower prices for internet service I thank you so much for the information about Freedompops dealings. Won't deal with them for sure.

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    1. Connect2Compete is about the only thing I'm aware of for Internet access for low income folks. The rates can go as low as $10/month once you have met the requirements, but even that can cost still be too much for some.

      The requirements for Connect2Compete are: One child enrolled in the Free School Lunch Program, not have had broadband for 90 days, and no outstanding/overdue bills for Internet access. That last requirement is completely insane. For those reading this comment, let's say you had Internet access, then lost your job, and were diligent about finding a new job but fell behind in paying your bills. Your Internet access gets cut off so now you have to go to the library or somewhere with WiFi, which isn't horrible. But then let's say you finally get a low-paying job. Now to get back to where you were, you have to pay your outstanding bill first (with piled on late fees because, well, greed) before you can meet the program requirements. Paying that bill is going to be nearly impossible because you've also got to keep up on the other bills such as electricity just to make ends meet so paying the outstanding bill has low priority. Meanwhile, your children are suffering (bad grades, long-term learning issues, etc.) through no fault of their own. This chicken-or-the-egg situation happens with the poor way more often than most people realize. I realize that Internet access shouldn't be a handout, but that third requirement is completely ridiculous. There's not a single bit of wiggle-room there - no form of justice to be seen whereby someone can plead their case and make some sort of payments on the outstanding bill while still simultaneously getting access to the program. It's double-punishment for the innocent.

      I would much rather see three options: Free, group, and $10/month tiers for low-income folks. The free tier would be restricted proxy access to very specific websites - job sites and websites authorized by educational institutions that the students in the home attend. No YouTube or anything like that - strictly course materials access. The goal? Get the adults back on their feet financially without hurting and holding back the next generation. The group and $10/month tiers would remove the restrictions but would either be shared access to a single high-speed line (low-income group rate - everyone in the group pools money together for something like an entire low-income apartment) or slower speeds for $10/month if not able to get a group together. Get 20 families in one complex on one $70/month line and that's only $3.50/month/family with plenty of bandwidth if everyone plays nicely. It's currently not allowed by cable providers to share your Internet access at the moment (because they are greedy), but a low-income group program like that would solve the problem of basic access. These two additional tiers would fill the missing gaps that I see and it isn't like the cable companies aren't hurting financially - they're actually doing great at ripping everyone off. Google Fiber needs to get deployed everywhere already. Rates have consistently dropped like a rock everywhere Google Fiber has been deployed.

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