Is NetZero’s Free WiFi Ghetto Broadband?

Is NetZero’s Free WiFi Ghetto Broadband?


For one year, NetZero is offering free mobile WiFi to anyone who signs up. The company, which pioneered free internet access about a decade ago, is hoping that users eventually upgrade to one of its paid plans after using up their monthly 200 megabytes of data allotment that will come with the access.  Users will get cut off after reaching the cap until the start of the next month. But, United Online Inc., the company that owns the brand, hopes users are so hooked that they cough up the $9.95 for 500 megabyte traffic – not that this will be sufficient for high traffic use.

The 200 free megabytes is just enough to websurf and send some email.  A half hour of video streaming would eat that up entirely. But in the push to get more people online and adopting broadband, this may be just the thing to get more people to realize its value.  Certainly, it’s no comparison to the high data plans offered through companies like Verizon Wireless, Sprint and AT&T but it’s a start.

PEW Internet and American Life Research studies, as well as the Joint Center for Political Studies have said that minorities that have not adopted broadband do not see the value.  But if they could sample what access is like through NetZero’s offering, they just might.

The part of the radiofrequency spectrum that NetZero relies on to provide the service was initially used by early cell phone companies. Those waves, unlike higher quality spectrum used by today’s 4G devices, cannot penetrate walls thereby making coverage spotty.  Since United Online doesn’t own spectrum, it is doing what other national wireless companies have done: lease wholesale spectrum access from ClearWire.

Also, with free comes overcrowding. Students, the unemployed, low income and others on limited or fixed budget, like the elderly, perhaps may gravitate in droves to the free service.  Congestion from too many users may also degrade quality of video streaming.

In sum, the NetZero plan may be the “ghetto” version of broadband access for poor and persons of color. Meanwhile, those who can afford more expensive wireless plans and in-home broadband offerings continue to benefit from the ability to game, stream movies, telemedicine, telework, and distance learn – all options that may not be reliable or safe to take advantage of using a service that isn’t necessarily the best possible quality.

In the end, all broadband and wireless companies may benefit from more users realizing how essential broadband access is and adoption may become less of an issue in the distant future.

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Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt represents small, women, and minority owned business and technology companies at The Ghatt Law Group LLC, the nations’ first communications law firm owned by women and minorities. She's won landmark cases on behalf of her clients which include national civil rights and public interest organizations. In addition to actively authoring several blogs, being a radio show host and sitting on the boards of three non-profits, she is a tech junkie who has been developing online web content since the very early years of the Internet, 1991 to be precise! Follow her on Twitter at @Jenebaspeaks, on her blog, Jenebaspeaks, which covers the intersection of politics and technology or on her Politics of Raising Children blog at The Washington Times Communities section. The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and have complete editorial independence from any Politic365 partners, sponsors, or advertisers. For additional information about Politic365, please visit


  1. NetZero's new service is more than a WiFi network. It's actually a hybrid system of WiFi, 3G-, and 4G cellular networks. In areas where Clear's metro-wide WiFi is available, it is the default access network. Where there's no WiFi, users access Clear's 4G cellular topography and drop to 3G cellular in areas where neither WiFi nor 4G are available.

    The company's base plans are similar to those offered by the cellular telnets on price and data allowance. Users are required to buy proprietary hardware, as also required by the cellular telnets. A major difference between the NetZero plans and those from its competitors is the hardware subscribers are required to purchase. NetZero offers a USB antenna for use with desktops, laptops, and tablets. The base plans from Verizon Wireless, AT&T, etc., are primarily for smartphones and select tablets.

    NetZero's plan isn't the "ghetto" of broadband. It's more like the 'hood.