Get one year of phone service for $49.99 – CNET

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Things are getting mighty interesting in the mobile-carrier space. Over here you’ve got Mint SIM offering dirt-cheap plans when you prepay for 3-12 months, Virgin Mobile selling a year of service for just $1 and Sprint giving it away for nothing.

Now, here comes FreedomPop, long a notable carrier for offering totally free (albeit limited) plans. Starting today, you can get a year of LTE phone service for $49.99 (plus $4.99 for a SIM card) — which works out to a little over $4 per month.

That one-time payment nets you 1,000 voice minutes, 1,000 text messages and 1GB of 4G LTE data per month — not quite enough data for the average user, but definitely enough for some. Think you’ll need more? You can also opt for a $78 6-month plan, which includes 2GB of data, or a $114 6-month plan with 5GB. Mint SIM’s equivalent semi-annual plans would cost you $108 and $144, respectively.

On paper, all this sounds pretty good. The reality may be a bit different.

The problem(s) with FreedomPop

I’ve written about FreedomPop many times over the years, and without exception I get angry comments and emails about the company. Among the complaints: unexpected charges, poor customer service, poor coverage, etc.

freedompop-sim-card-checkout-3

Hope you weren’t planning to bring your own CDMA phone to FreedomPop. Only unlocked GSM models need apply. Or, you can buy one of two phones that run on CDMA. Confused yet?

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

I’ve never used the carrier for more than just anecdotal testing, but I can add $.02 to the discussion. For starters, coverage is poor, at least for me, but that’s because FreedomPop is, in part, a Sprint-powered CDMA service — and Sprint proper is also poor in my area. But FP is now an AT&T carrier as well (for GSM phones), and I’ve had much better luck on that network.

As for unexpected charges, when you sign up for one of FreedomPop’s monthly plans (including the aforementioned free one), the checkout process is convoluted and confusing — to the point where you might be agreeing to added services without realizing it.

My big issue with FreedomPop: Its web site continues to be a mess of the highest order. To do just about anything, you have to “check availability” by entering your Zip code and an email address. That effectively creates an account for you (even if you don’t actually buy anything), resulting in a home page that looks significantly different the next time you visit it. How different? For starters, the promo banner for the annual plan no longer appears: 

freedompop-before-and-after

On the left, here’s what the FreedomPop home page looks like the first time you visit. On the right, here’s what it looks like after you perform the required “check availability” step. Huh?

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Meanwhile, good luck finding any specific information. For example, this new plan: Is it for CDMA phones, GSM phones or both? The promo page touts a “nationwide CDMA network,” but when you click the Get Offer button, you’re presented with your choice of two phones to buy (already confusing) or a SIM card kit — one that’s for GSM phones.

So. Much. Fail.

Meanwhile, what happens if you go over your 1GB data allotment? Does the service support mobile hotspot? Visual voicemail? Can you use your phone’s existing dialer or do you have to use FreedomPop’s app? You may be able to find answers to these questions by diving into the support section — but should you have to?

For what it’s worth, I asked a FreedomPop rep for clarification on some of these things. Mobile hotspot and visual voicemail: yes. After you reach 1GB, data costs $.015 per MB (so $15/GB, which is on the high side). If you want to bring your own phone… honestly I’m lost. The rep explained this a couple times and it still doesn’t make sense.

Regarding the discrepancies on the FreedomPop web site before and after the “check availability” step (see screenshot, above), I was told to clear my browser’s cache or switch over to incognito mode. Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Is the hassle worth it?

Suppose there’s a car you want to buy, but the sales guy is just awful. Do you give up on the car, or do you put up with this guy until you can drive off the lot?

Same deal here: You have to endure an awful site to get the service. The question is, once you’re past all the web nonsense, will you be a happy FreedomPop driver? I’m going to cautiously say “probably.” You made a one-time payment, so there shouldn’t be any additional charges until a year from now. Assuming you went the GSM, SIM-kit route, you should get solid, AT&T-powered coverage (though not necessarily AT&T-level performance — few MVNOs afford the same network speed). 

So then we’re back to the math: 1GB of 4G LTE data per month for the equivalent of $4.16 per month. If that’s all you need, this deal might appeal.

Your thoughts?

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