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NetZero introduces 4G wireless Net modems and no-contract access plans

Consumer Reports News: March 19, 2012 09:08 AM

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Remember NetZero? Today, the company introduced a new 4G broadband Internet access service that doesn't require a two-year commitment to wireless service. What's more, new subscribers can try a year of the NetZero wireless 4G service for free. Sort of.

The NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband service is similar to the wireless data services and devices sold by competing cell-phone service providers. NetZero customers choose a 4G modem—a $50 USB device for one computer or a $100 "hotspot" that can wirelessly connect up to eight Wi-Fi devices, such as that brand-new Apple iPad or e-book reader—and a monthly wireless data plan.

NetZero's monthly 4G broadband plans are:

  • $50 for 4GB
  • $35 for 2GB
  • $20 for 1GB
  • $10 for 500MB
  • $0 for 200MB

netzero-hotspot-modem-lg.jpgThe $100 NetZero 4G Hotspot will connect up to eight Wi-Fi devices to Clearwire's WiMAX wireless Internet network.

Subscribers can switch billing plans at any time without incurring a contractual obligation—although they are limited to 12 months for the free 200MB service. Users can also choose download rates—either a "warpspeed" of 10 megabits per second or a "lightspeed" of 1 megabit per second—at will. Changing between "warpspeed" and "lightspeed" can occur in as little as 15 minutes, so subscribers can vary between the speeds as needed—say, using the slower speed on days when only e-mail is vital, and going to the faster speed when watching online video smoothly is more important.

Free-plan subscribers who go over their monthly 200MB allotment of wireless data, will have to upgrade to a paid plan before they can keep surfing for the month. And any subscriber who exceeds their plan's monthly data cap will be shut out until the next month—or pay overage charges of $7 for an additional 250MB or $20 for an extra 1GB of wireless 4G data.

Still, conventional wireless 4G service can be expensive. Sprint, for example, offers a free 4G hotspot modem, but subscribers need to stick around for two years—at minimum, an $840 commitment, not counting any taxes or overage charges.

Should you jump at NetZero's inexpensive, contract-free wireless broadband service? There are a couple of caveats to consider.

  1. Service isn't widely available—or rated.
    The NetZero 4G Wireless Broadband will be available in about 80 U.S. cities—paltry compared to the 8,000 neighborhoods that NetZero services nationwide with wired home Internet, including free dial-up access and DSL broadband. But even with that presence in wired access, Consumer Reports' subscribers—who are the heart of our Ratings of service providers—haven't exactly flocked to NetZero.
  2. Fast 4G service. Maybe.
    NetZero is using Clearwire's WiMax wireless broadband technology, a 4G "flavor" that is falling out of favor because of LTE (Long Term Evolution). And while Clearwire's 4G download speeds are technically fast for a fourth-generation wireless setup, NetZero's function and future is questionable—especially as larger wireless service providers ramp up 4G LTE coverage nationwide.

But at just $50 for a single mobile broadband modem and 200MB of wireless data per month, NetZero's service might be a very attractive deal for laptop workers who infrequently need Web access while away from a public Wi-Fi hotspot. What do you think?

NetZero [United Online]
Questions to consider in deciphering 4G technology [USA Today]

Paul Eng

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