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How to get a free data plan for your tablet

Who says you can't get something for nothing? If you have modest needs, and you're willing to work at it, you can score some no-strings-attached data.

I tend to think of tablets as "indoor" devices, used primarily at home or the office -- places rife with Wi-Fi. But what happens when you go out into the world and need connectivity? Now you have to pay for a 4G plan, right?

Not necessarily. Mobile carrier Freedompop offers a limited amount of free data for tablet users, with no strings attached (but a few caveats).

What happened to T-Mobile's Free Data for Life option? As of May 7, that lovely freebie is no more. Fortunately, folks who already have the plan are grandfathered in and get to keep it.

But if you missed the boat, Freedompop is now your only real option for totally-free tablet data. Let's take a look at what you can get, and how.

I call shenanigans

Freedompop has arguably the most user-hostile web site of any mobile carrier. Trying to get even a shred of information requires patience, persistence and, ultimately, your email and home addresses -- under the pretense of "checking to see if you have coverage."

I say this having spent a considerable chunk of time trying to figure out how to get a data plan for my existing tablet -- an unlocked GSM-compatible iPad. I know Freedompop offers such a plan; I just don't see any landing page with any concrete details about it, to say nothing of a way to actually get it.

Eventually I stumbled onto the LTE SIM Kit/Data-only bundle, which is designed for GSM networks. (There's no mention of CDMA, and if that network is supported, I couldn't find information on how to get service for it.)

Freedompop's checkout page for the data-only SIM card. But, uh, what's this about a ZTE smartphone? And do not overlook the fine print.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

The SIM card itself was priced at $9.99 -- simple enough -- but where was the info on actual data plans, free or otherwise? I could click Learn more about Freedompop service, which would literally take me back to the home page, or I could click Check Availability.

Assuming you're willing to supply an email and home address, the latter takes you to the checkout page, where you see a prominent image touting...1GB of data and a ZTE smartphone. Um, what? Just below that, in your actual shopping cart, you see the SIM kit for $9.99 and various freebies -- two of which are actually trial offers.

Here's where you need to read the fine print, because after those first-month-free trials expire, you'll get billed $22.98 monthly unless you cancel both and switch to the free plan.

What's the free plan? Yeah, still have no idea. And the ZTE smartphone? That remains a mystery as well.

Freedompop's real freebie

For clarification on all this, I reached out to Freedompop's PR agency. A company spokesperson told me that the free plan affords 500MB of data per month, and that both GSM and CDMA networks are supported. If you have a tablet that's compatible with the latter, you'll need a SIM card -- unless you have an Apple universal SIM, she said.

What happens if a user consumes more than 500MB in a given month? Heuer said you can purchase a bigger plan (2GB for $20, for example) or pay as you go: $.015 per MB. You're not automatically charged for overages unless your account is set to auto top-up. If it's not, service is suspended until you pay for more data.

All that seems straightforward enough. So why isn't the information presented anywhere on Freedompop's site? If it is, why is it virtually impossible to find?

I get that the company is in business to make money, and would obviously prefer paying customers to freeloading ones. But there needs to be a balance, because right now it's a total turn-off.

I should also mention that in my capacity as The Cheapskate, I get a lot of complaints about Freedompop's customer service (or lack thereof). I suspect that many folks don't read the fine print, then become furious at being billed for something they thought was going to be free. But then Freedompop either doesn't respond in a timely or effective way, or the billing continues even though it was promised to stop.

All this amounts to the old standby: caveat emptor. If you want free data for your tablet, you can have it -- but be prepared to jump through some hoops, and perhaps deal with some other hassles as well.

If you've found another option for free tablet data, by all means share it in the comments!

Editors' note: This article was originally published on January 27, 2017, and has since been updated.