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FreedomPop bringing free 4G service to iPhones

The $99 Freedom Sleeve case promises WiMax performance, 500MB of free data, and even extra battery life. But questions linger.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
3 min read
The Freedom Sleeve case for iPhone 4/4S promises blazing broadband speeds.
The Freedom Sleeve case for iPhone 4/4S promises blazing broadband speeds. FreedomPop

Back in February, wireless upstart FreedomPop made some bold promises about free mobile broadband service. Now it appears the company is getting ready to make good on at least one of them.

As reported this morning by Apple news site TUAW, FreedomPop is now taking pre-orders for the Freedom Sleeve, a $99 iPhone 4/4S case that provides "free" 4G wireless service -- among other benefits.

Exciting stuff, right? Before you pull out your credit card, check the fine print. For starters, FreedomPop's WiMax-powered 4G broadband isn't available everywhere -- like here in metro Detroit, where I live. You'll need to complete the "check availability" form to see if there's coverage in your area.

Second, and of greater concern, I can find no mention of what FreedomPop plans to charge for service once you exhaust your free allotment of data. According to the pre-order page, you'll get "up to 1GB free broadband," but TUAW's unattributed report states that the company has dropped it to 500MB. The report also notes: "You can bump up that data by participating in a social service that'll earn you an unspecified amount of data for connecting with your friends. Customers can also transfer unused data to other customers who need the extra capacity."

I'm trying to get some clarification from FreedomPop and will update the post when the company responds.

In the meantime, I'm skeptical. Most users would burn through 500MB in a matter of days. FreedomPop's terms of service note that you'll automatically be signed up for a "basic service plan," but doesn't explain what that is. There's also no mention of whether there's a contract involved, though I'm guessing not. FreedomPop's whole raison d'etre appears to be freedom from the usual mobile-broadband constraints.

Update: According to a FreedomPop representative, users get 500MB per month right out of the gate, and can earn additional extra capacity "in various ways on site." The maximum is currently 1GB, but the company plans to increase the limit once the "FreedomPop friend network site" goes live. Beyond that, you'll be charged "competitive overage rates," with the option of pre-paying for larger data packages. There will be no contracts.

The Freedom Sleeve itself looks to be a fairly compact accessory, on par with a typical battery-extender case. Apparently it will extend your iPhone's battery by up to six hours, according to FreedomPop. It also serves as a mobile hot spot for up to eight devices and allows for anytime, anywhere FaceTime use. (I'm guessing that's because your iPhone effectively connects to the case via Wi-Fi, thereby working around FaceTime's Wi-Fi-only rule.)

You can see a fairly rah-rah demo of the Freedom Sleeve in the video below. I'm not sure why the company chose this third-party "in the wild" video, which appears to come from a beta tester, rather than something of its own making -- another head scratcher.

What do you think of this? Are you sufficiently gung-ho for an inexpensive 4G option that you're pre-ordering this immediately? Or do you feel like FreedomPop needs to answer a few questions first? I'm in the latter camp.

Update: Having received clarification on some key points (see above), I think this looks like a mighty attractive option for iPhone owners lucky enough to live in a coverage area. After you buy the case, which is very reasonably priced, you can theoretically enjoy free 4G service. Color me intrigued.