You will not find a cheaper source of residential broadband than FreedomPop—the Sprint MVNO offers its entry-level tier of service free of charge. But that tempting price comes with a long list of qualifications and gotchas on the $89 (direct) Freedom Hub Burst, an at-home wireless router that lets users tap into the carrier’s mobile broadband network. On top of that, the WiMAX service the Burst relies on has very limited nationwide coverage and is slated to be shut down in a couple of years.
Setup and Wireless Connectivity
The Hub Burst could be mistaken for a lot of other wireless routers, although having only one Ethernet port on the back is a bummer. There’s also a telephone jack covered over with a plastic protector. You can leave it on its side or position it upright using a little plastic stand.
There was no mystery about the Hub’s Wi-Fi network name and password, as large stickers on the back revealed both. Unfortunately, there was even less mystery about its default administrator password: admin. Change that immediately.
Most users will also want to change the Wi-Fi defaults here: With so few 802.11b-only devices left on the market, you might as well switch off that mode and run the Hub in 802.11g/n or only as an 802.11n device. Encryption, however, sensibly defaults to WPA2/PSK.
Whatever flavor of Wi-Fi you choose, the Hub will only serve it up in the crowded 2.4GHz band; the faster 5GHz band isn’t an option here.
Six different devices running five different operating systems (OS X Mavericks, Windows 8.1, iOS 7, Android 4.x and Chrome OS) connected to the Hub Burst without issue in my tests. Its range was less impressive; although the signal had to go through multiple walls en route, I still didn’t expect it to drop before I could walk a laptop across the next-door neighbor’s driveway, some 75 feet away from the router.
Pricing and Presentation
The Hub comes with four service options: a free tier that covers 1GB of data a month; $9.99 for 5GB a month with “up to 1.5Mbps” download speeds; $14.99 for 10GB a month and “up to 3Mbps” speed; and $18.99 for 10GB at “up to 12Mbps.”
You may want to take our word for it, as looking up these prices required submitting a Zip code and an e-mail address, after which the site insists on a street address. To add to the creepiness factor, when I tried submitting fake Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo usernames and a long-defunct AOL account, the site responded with a “Please try another email address” prompt.
And even after coughing up all that info, FreedomPop’s site still wouldn’t state the current price for the top-tier plan and instead only touted that the first month would be free. It was much more forthcoming about incremental fees that you’d be wise to decline. The most insulting among them has to be the option to pay $1.99 per month to get e-mailed alerts when you’re near your plan’s usage cap.
Ordinary wireline home Internet has much higher usage limits, if any. But if you take video streaming and downloading TV or movies out of the mix—which you may have to do considering WiMAX’s slow speeds—these plans will be adequate for basic Web surfing and email access. Back in 2010, Clearwire said its WiMAX users averaged 7 GB a month.
Data Network and Performance
The Hub Burst connects only to the WiMAX network of Sprint’s subsidiary Clearwire—a key limit unmentioned in FreedomPop’s product page, FAQ, or press release about this device. There’s also no 3G to fall back on, nor can the Hub use Sprint’s slowly expanding LTE network.
Clearwire ran out of money years ago and put down its tools before it could get anywhere near half the country covered with WiMAX. In Virginia, for example, FreedomPop’s coverage map shows zero coverage outside of the Richmond area and Northern Virginia, and entire states (starting with Alabama and Arizona) get completely shut out. Even in its coverage area, the WiMAX network has significant holes. To top it off, the entire WiMAX network will get shut down in 2015 anyway; company CEO Stephen Stokols told us earlier that it will give customers free LTE replacement hardware at that point.
If, however, you happen to live within WiMAX range, you can at least get better-than-DSL downloads, if not uploads. Just outside of Washington, a loaner Hub Burst yielded average download speeds of 4.09Mbps, but upstream it only averaged .72Mbps (based on six Speedtest.net checks on two laptops). Repeating the test with the Hub Burst just outside the home raised those numbers to 6.23 and 1.44Mbps.
If you’re in the right part of the U.S. and don’t lean too heavily on your home Internet connection (the relatively slow speeds we observed would make this a poor fit for Netflix anyway), FreedomPop can either take the place of a more expensive wired service or provide a decent free backup for occasional outages. You need to keep an eye on the company’s fee structure, though, and keep an eye out for extra charges to make sure you get what you’re paying for—or what you aren’t paying for, in this case.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc