Tuesday, January 14, 2014

FreedomPop’s Phone, USB Data Modem, and Wifi Hotspot

Update 8-21-14: FreedomPop may be getting desperate in trying to get more income from their customers.  I can tell you that my opinion of them, already low, is even lower.  It's too bad; a company that is honest to its customers is going to keep them. 

I bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone from them about six weeks ago.  It took that long for them to deliver the phone.  The main reason I bought this phone from them was because their representative on the popular shopping site woot.com stated that this phone would offer wifi tethering.  The FAQ page on their website promised the same. 

Guess what?  When I received the phone, there was a "Freedompop Wifi Tether" app on the phone -- but it didn't work. 

I called and emailed FreedomPop customer service, and I also tried to post a description of my problem on the FreedomPop forums.  First off, the forums are sneaky.  I had to be approved to post something on the forum, and when I did try to post something, Freedompop censored it before it ever posted. 

I finally received an answer to my email.  This is not what FreedomPop promised and is really, really bad on Freedompop's part:

FreedomPop inbox@my.nanorep.com 


Dear Norbert Wu,

The reason why you cannot enable wifi tethering on your device is because it requires an active subscription to the Premier plan. Tethering on the Galaxy S3 is only accessible with the Premier plan. I currently have on file that you are subscribed to our Pro 500MB plan. You can always call our support line to upgrade your plan and receive more information.
Thank you for your support!
Your Personal FreedomPop Support Agent,

I am not completely upset here, because I did get a wifi tethering app to work (see my later post from August 2014) and, well, I expected broken promises and crappy service from FreedomPop.  You do get what you pay for.  I am not completely unhappy -- I have a Sprint networked Samsung Galaxy S3 phone that I bought for about $225, and it works pretty well -- and is completely free for the first 100 calls, texts, and 500Mb of data.  Except for the time spent having to call my credit card to get false charges reversed, which I anticipate -- but that's not any worse than my experience with Verizon and my iPad data plan!

Update: Since writing this review, I've checked the FreedomPop website, trying to look at their newer plans and devices.  I am sorry to say that FreedomPop's website seems to be deliberately making it harder for customers to know all the important details before buying a device.  First, as as PC World review stated, when you first enter the FreedomPop website, you are required to enter your email address (it notes that fake emails are often declined).  You are then required to enter your complete address, down to the street, city and zip code.  Yes, this is kind of creepy.

I went through this process to look at the details of a new hotspot and other devices.  I was disappointed.  The website is clearly designed to direct a customer to buy first and learn about the plans later.  If you choose a device, you are immediately hit up with a hard sell to purchase data notifications and other items which cost a bit each month (and I find unnecessary).  You are then directed to buy the device, without any information about the plans.  For instance, FreedomPop is selling an Overdrive Pro like I describe below.  I wanted to check to see if they had changed any pricing or other information about my $3.99 per month plan.  It was impossible to find any information about plan costs and the clear explanation that I received from a FreedomPop representative on the woot.com forums. 

Come on, FreedomPop.  You have great products.  You don't need to be deceptive to sell these products.  Open up your website, give clear descriptions of what you offer on your website so that your website informs.  The sales will  come, I am sure, and much of the stress of customers complaining and returning products will go away since you will have customers who are adequately informed from the start.

Here's an example: FreedomPop states for users of their FreedomPop phone:
"If you are experiencing a shortened battery life for your Evo Design 4G:
 First off, let us know if you want a new battery free of charge. Just email customer support with a valid shipping address." 

I looked and looked, but FreedomPop does not list an email for their customer support anywhere.  I called the sales number that they give out, but I was put on hold for 10 minutes and I gave up.  I did find a web form which I filled out, requesting a new battery.  We'll see if they come through.  I have a feeling that this is not going to happen.  I'll let readers know if it DOES happen.  

Here's my review: 
I have been an Apple customer since buying the first Mac at Stanford in 1983.  I operated a small business where all four of my staff used Macs.  My wife and I use four Macs, three Windows laptops, an iPad, and an iPod touch.  I say this because I know computer technology well and would normally be a perfect candidate for an iPhone or other smartphone.

I do NOT have an iPhone nor another kind of smartphone except for the FreedomPop phone below.  I refuse to become enslaved to another two-year contract and the exorbitant rates charged by the likes of AT&T and Verizon to use a smartphone.  Instead, I get by with my iPad when traveling, and if I really have to, I'll buy a month of data for my iPad from Verizon at $20 per month for 2 Gb of data.  However, I have not had to buy cellular data access in the last 18 months, since I discovered the offerings of FreedomPop. 
I have three products from FreedomPop.  I love the fact that they give me free Internet access, but I don’t like the sneaky stuff and the low quality of some of their product offerings. 

First, the basics.  FreedomPop is a service that offers free cellular data service up to a certain amount of data.  FreedomPop's network is actually Sprint’s network.  I’ll describe the three products that I have with them, and yes, I have to keep track of each product with a separate email address.  I don’t have a big problem with that. 

First, one reviewer on Yelp says this:
It's great that I get 500MB of free data every month, and I don't even get charged if I don't use any data in one month. However, their 4G WiMax network is spotty in my area, and it costs monthly to use the more reliable 3G network.

He’s right.  Sprint’s 3G network is far larger than their 4G network, which only works in major metropolitan areas.  Read on for more details.  And even Sprint's 3G network is nowhere near as widespread as Verizon's and AT&T's.  If you live and work in Lumber City, GA like my friend Andy, then you should buy a Verizon phone.  FreedomPop won't work much for you there.  

Here are the three products from FreedomPop that I carry around: 

1.  FreedomPop’s Bolt USB data modem: this is a USB dongle (stick) that you plug into your laptop.  It only gets Sprint’s Clearwire 4G service, so you can’t use it unless you are in major city areas.  Note that this only gives you 4G service, not Sprint’s 3G service.  Sprint’s 3G data service area is far more widespread than their 4G service. 

I live and work in two main areas: near Monterey, California and San Jose, California.  This Bolt USB modem won’t work for me when I am in Monterey.  It will work for me when I am in San Jose.  When it works, it is often very slow.  However, it  gives me internet access when I am traveling in major metropolitan areas, it is small and light, so I carry it with me in my backpack whenever I am traveling.  It’s a great solution for travelers and folks who have weekend homes in the city.  This way, if you spend your weekends in the city, you have internet access for free!  I bought my first Bolt for $50 from FreedomPop and then bought a second one for $10 when they offered it on woot.com. 

Each Bolt gives me 500 Mb (effectively 400Mb if you consider their rules) of free data per month.  After that, I know that I will get charged for data usage.  I have no problem with that.  FreedomPop’s website shows me my usage and I’ve never yet been charged.  I read the fine print and it’s a bit sneaky, but not beyond my comprehension (compared to the unbelievably sneaky stuff from Verizon and AT&T, this is nothing).  FreedomPop used to charge $1 per month if you did not use their gear at all, but they’ve since dropped this charge.  They also have some sneaky charges if you wish to be notified if your data usage approaches the limit of free usage, and if you want automatic top-off of your data or something.  I’ve had their USB modem for over a year now, used it infrequently, but have never had to pay for any usage charges. 

2.  When FreedomPop had a sale on woot.com, one of their reps gave the best information I’ve seen since in the forum discussions.  I bought a FreedomPop Overdrive Pro after reading her explanation.  Basically, it costs FreedomPop more to offer Sprint’s 3G data access than 4G.  The only data modem/wifi hotspot that they offer, which offers Sprint’s 3G data network, is the Overdrive Pro.  I am not sure if this is still offered by FreedomPop (they do offer the Photon, which only offers 4G access). 

I get 500Mb of data (again, effectively only 400Mb of data) free each month by buying this Overdrive Pro.  I pay $3.99 per month so that I can get 3G network access.  This is a good deal in my estimation.  I can travel pretty much anywhere and get access to Sprint’s 3G data network.  For instance, here in Monterey I can use this wifi hotspot to get on the internet from the golf course or beach.  I would not be able to get 4G cellular data in Monterey.  I don’t have a problem paying $4 per month for a bit of cellular data access when I need it.  The Overdrive Pro is a marvelous little device that is super-easy to use and understand.  It’s got a great LCD screen that actually gives you useful information.  I am very happy with this device and the data plan, but I actually rarely use the thing.

3.  FreedomPop phone: I bought this phone when it first came out and paid far lower for it than what FreedomPop seems to be selling it for now.  I believe that I paid only $100 or so, and I’ve seen it advertised now for only a year’s worth of “free” service ($10.99 per month beyond the first year) for $150 (and this was a 50% off deal). I probably would not buy this phone if it cost me more than $100.  When I bought the phone, I was promised free use of the phone for life.  FreedomPop also clearly stated that this phone could be used as a wifi hotspot and that the data from the phone could be shared -- but they have now stated that this phone cannot be tethered or used as a wifi hotspot.  So forgive me for not trusting them completely that I'll continue to be able to use this phone at no charge. 

I can’t say that I am overly thrilled with this phone.  The phone itself is OK but has the major drawback that it needs to be charged every 12 hours.  That’s a real hassle. 

This is not really used as a voice phone as FreedomPop configures it.  The phone has a voice function, but it is entirely over cellular data. It’s the same as using Skype or Talkatone on an iPad.  The phone comes with the ability to use Sprint’s 3G and 4G network, attempts to use 4G whenever possible, and uses 3G service if there’s no 4G network.  If you place a voice call using this phone, then it is converted to digital data and goes over the 3G or 4G cellular data network using FreedomPop‘s app – which really, really, really sucks.  I tried using this phone to make some calls over a month, and no one could hear me.  Not a single person.  It was absolutely horrible.  I’ve recently downloaded Talkatone from the Google Play Store, which I use on my iPad, along with Google Voice.  Calls made using this app seem to go through a lot better. 

I believe that the phone will not stay on to receive data unless you constantly press the power button to enable it.  It will look like it is on, but it is actually asleep.  Anyone calling you will not make your phone ring.  This is a hassle, obviously. 

I rarely talk on the phone, so it’s taken me a while to figure the above out.  FreedomPop’s allotted 1000 minutes and 1000 texts allowed for this phone are kind of ridiculous, given the fact that both of the apps used for voice calls and texts on this phone are just data-driven. 

I have kept this phone and carry it around because it is good at getting my emails.  It’s a free way to check on your emails while traveling around.  Just don’t expect to use it much for voice calls (unless this Talkatone app works better) and don’t expect it to work well as a voice phone (eg it won’t ring when folks call you unless you have it completely powered up).  The phone does give up up to 500Mb of free 3G data per month, so that’s nice.  Its web browser works OK within the coverage area, and I am pretty dang pleased with being able to view my emails while traveling around. 

In conclusion, FreedomPop’s service and products aren’t perfect, but they fill a real need for folks who travel and don’t want to pay up the nose for the major carrier’s usurious phone and data plans.  I wish they would be less sneaky about some of their charges, but in this shark-infested world of cell phone service, they are not as bad as Verizon and AT&T.  Being able to get cellular data for free, and even emails and limited phone capability for free, is pretty dang great.  Four stars for FreedomPop; five stars if their damn phone would work better and if they were more clear and forthright about the costs. 


Spence Black said...

Freedompop is shaking things up and will have some bumps in the road. Customers of Freedompop will have to be a little patient with things like customer service and hope the company makes it.

Anonymous said...

I just got this phone and it will only connect over wifi to make calls, which is pretty useless. I assumed I could talk over the 3g Sprint network but I can't even get it to do that. Keeps telling me the signal is to weak when I know it isn't.

Anonymous said...

The only thing Popfreedom is shaking up is people's believe in decent service. Coverage is non existent, speeds are poor, billing is deceptive, customer service nonesitent.

Anonymous said...

Just got a Gilt coupon for a discount on the Bolt: $79. Wanted to look at FreedomPop as I use Citi-Net wireless for my internet connection, here in San Francisco. Since I do a lot of streaming (watch movies and tv on my mac) I'm happy w/ Citi-Net's $30/mo price tag but OFTEN dissatisfied with connectivity. Every time I sit down to watch something on Netflix of HBOGo I know there's a good chance it either won't work at all or will be blurry and cut in-&-out. So, PopFreedom would cost a little more (I'm looking at a 2013 quote of their 10GB plan I found online), but might be worth it if download speeds were fast and consistent enough for me to stream video. As the author says, though, plan options and specs are non-existent on their website which is pushing my hand away from choosing them: I won't go in blindly. Thanks very much for your article!