FreedomPop looks to attract frugal Web surfers with capped Internet service

Internet subscribers in the U.S. have never been fans of bandwidth caps imposed by their service. Take Comcast’s decision in 2008 to introduce a 250GB monthly cap: The company had to go on a PR blitz in response to public backlash. Similarly, Time Warner Cable in 2009 had to roll back initial plans for tiered bandwidth caps in the face of user outrage. And AT&T didn’t win any fans in 2011 when it announced a 150GB bandwidth cap for its DSL subscribers.

Still, at least one wireless broadband service thinks users are ready to embrace capped bandwidth—if it means no monthly fees. FreedomPop now offers Burst, an $89 WiMax-connected home router, that includes 1GB of free data every month. Pre-orders for Burst began in December and became publicly available for purchase on Thursday in select areas of the U.S.

The 1GB data cap certainly sounds severe, but it’s not all that different from the caps users face with their mobile devices. After all, as bandwidth caps from major ISPs have come into play during the last five years, we’ve increasingly become dependent on mobile services. FreedomPop is clearly hoping to bring that mobile mentality into the home.

“Capped data plans for lighter consumption are not available in the U.S., leaving consumers to sign up for unlimited plans that can range from $45 to $60 per month,” FreedomPop said in a statement Thursday announcing availability. The company hopes to attract subscribers who have relatively low bandwidth needs for things like checking e-mail, browsing the Web, and logging on to Facebook.

FreedomPop lists a range of prices for its Burst service, but it’s the 1GB of free bandwidth that’s likely to appeal to Internet users who just want to check their email and browse websites.

Enticing as no monthly service charge may sound, let me suggest that if you enjoy things like streaming movies from Netflix, you’re probably going to want to turn elsewhere—at least based on my checks of what FreedomPop was offering in the New York City area. FreedomPop’s free plan offers a maximum speed of up to 1.5 Megabits per second, a speed that in my experience with DSL providers can make just checking Gmail a painful experience. To double that speed with FreedomPop, you have to shell out $15 per month with a 10GB bandwidth cap, or pay $19 per month for speeds of up to 8Mbps with the same 10GB cap. Exceed that amount, and you’ll shell out one penny for every 2 megabytes used, which works out to $5.12 per gigabyte. Free users who exceed their single gigabyte allowance will pay double that amount at one cent per megabyte or $10.24 per gigabyte.

FreedomPop currently offers connectivity over Clearwire’s creaky WiMax network, the 4G cellular technology that is the HD DVD to LTE’s Blu-ray. FreedomPop says its service will expand to include Sprint’s LTE network later in 2013. Sprint in December announced it intended to buy complete ownership of Clearwire as part of its LTE rollout.

FreedomPop told us that it will support WiMax connectivity until 2015, at which point the service should be completely LTE-based. FreedomPop plans to offer mobile connectivity devices with LTE later in 2013, but the company said an LTE home router won’t be available until 2014. Once the LTE router is available, anyone wishing to switch to an LTE router will be able to exchange their WiMax device, paying any difference in cost between Burst and the new LTE router, a FreedomPop spokesperson said; pricing for that upcoming LTE home router hasn’t been finalized.

FreedomPop is certainly cheaper than broadband providers such as AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon, who also offer slower, tiered Internet speeds. Most home Internet pricing starts at around $30 to $45 from the major providers. If you don’t have high bandwidth requirements, then FreedomPop’s service may be worth looking at. But if your interests include online gaming, Hulu, Netflix or any other premium video service, a traditional ISP may be more appealing.

Updated at 10:55 a.m. PT to include for information on FreedomPop’s WiMax and LTE plans.

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