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.