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BANDWIDTH

Cablevision's Freewheel Wi-Fi-only phone service is cheap but very limited

Ting, Republic, and others offer similar pricing and better coverage

Published: February 18, 2015 10:15 PM

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Cell-service prices from the major mobile companies are falling, and new providers are popping up to compete for customers. Freewheel, a new low-cost mobile phone service from cable giant Cablevision sounds like it could be one of the best deals available. The no-contract plan includes unlimited texts, voice minutes, and data for just $10 a month for existing Cablevision customers and $30 for noncustomers. Besides lower prices, Cablevision subscribers get free access to the Wi-Fi hotspots of Cablevision’s partners, which include Bright House Networks, Cox, Time Warner Cable, and Xfinity. But don't rush to sign up just yet.

Here's the problem: Freewheel depends entirely on Wi-Fi access for its connections, meaning no Wi-Fi, no service (except for 911 emergency calls, which are mandated by the FCC). This isn't the first Wi-Fi-based mobile service on the market. Republic Wireless got there first—but Republic offers a cellular option for when you're on the road. Freewheel doesn't offer that. And that pretty much rules out using the phone while traveling by car. In fact, maintaining a voice conversation can be tricky business even if you decide to take a stroll.

Further, Freewheel currently works with only one phone: the Motorola Moto G, a mid-tier Android smart phone that’s been modified to run on Wi-Fi networks, and in particular Cablevision’s Optimum Wi-Fi network. Cablevision sells this phone for only $100 without a contract. (If you’re thinking this could be a cheap way to get Moto G to use on another carrier, forget it. Cablevision neutered the phone’s cellular network connections, probably for that reason.)

So who is Freewheel for? Cablevision says its target customers are people who spend a lot of time in Wi-Fi-rich environments, including colleges, offices, and homes. That makes sense—but there are already a panoply of apps that bring such capabilities to laptops, tablets, and other devices for little or no money. And then there's Republic, which scored high in our annual cell-service survey, offers equally low prices for the same service ($10), has a wider selection of phones, and lets you add conventional cellular service when Wi-Fi isn’t available for just a few bucks more.

To be fair, if you’re already a Cablevision customer with a kid in college, or frequently find yourself in Wi-Fi rich environments, you might want to give Freewheel a spin. If so, here are more details, based on our hands-on testing.

Learn how to save money on your phone plan and get the best cell phone plan for your family. And find out whether small carriers outrank the big ones in our latest cell phone service survey.

You'll like the phone, more or less

When I was in my office or on my favorite couch at home, I found using Freewheel on a Moto G smart phone to be quite pleasant. The phone is a palm-friendly 5 inches x 2.6 inches x 0.5 inches and its rubberlike back gave me a firm, comfortable grip. The Moto G has a respectable 4.5-inch display with 720P resolution. And battery life, which we didn’t test in our labs, appeared to be adequate for a full day of use. The phone runs Android 4.4, and gives you full access to Android apps and their benefits (you can even download Skype). There's not much to say about the phone’s interface except that in addition to a handful of apps for Cablevision and Newsday content, one element on the home-screen widget bar tells you when Wi-Fi signals are good, when weak signals may compromise voice quality, and when it’s time to keep moving because you have no service.

Walk if you must, but don’t run

Making phone calls over Wi-Fi, a technology that's been around since the mid-2000s, poses a challenge because calls get dropped when you move out of range, or sometimes when you go from one hot spot to another. Freewheel users can avoid such interruptions if they roam within Cablevision’s mesh of 1.1 million public Optimum Wi-Fi access points, largely concentrated in the New York metropolitan area. Indeed, our testers were able to stay on the line as they meandered down streets riddled with Optimum Wi-Fi access points in Yonkers, New York.

However, we found calls dropped when our testers ventured outside of the Optimum Wi-Fi “mesh” or between non-Optimum Wi-Fi access points—even when the Wi-Fi signals were strong and overlapping. However, text and voice messages sent during those service gaps were quickly retrieved once Wi-Fi connections were reestablished.

Surprise! Your house is the hot spot

To minimize Freewheel dead zones, Cablevision is adding “hundreds of  Optimun WiFi access points a day.” Here's how. New customers now receive special modem/wireless routers at no charge. These routers simultaneously supply the subscriber's home network and a public-access Optimum Wi-Fi hotspot. These so-called Smart Routers have two service set identification (SSID) addresses, one for the subscriber’s home network and the other for the public.

This raises questions—are passers-by going to tap into your home network? Will they be hogging your bandwidth? Not to worry, says Cablevision. Although these two SSIDs occupy the same device and are fed by the same line, their data streams are separate, and they have their own bandwidth allocations and access rules. All this should ensure that home users remain safe from hackers and continue to get the network speeds they are paying for—no matter how many outsiders tap into the router’s Optimum Wi-Fi network.

If you have such a router, you can’t turn off the public Wi-Fi access point feature or opt out of the service. But you can, for now, request a stand-alone modem to which you can attach your own Wi-Fi router.

You might find better low-cost options

Other mobile providers, such as Ting, Republic Wireless, and Consumer Cellular combine unlimited service over Wi-Fi with cellular service when you want it, and prices are just $10 to $20 a month. Given that, Freewheel makes little sense for non-Cablevision subscribers, who are being charged a $30 monthly fee.

Bottom line. A small subset of Cablevision customers may find this new service useful. But until the company adds more phones, brings down the price for all customers, and adds a cellular-connection option, Freewheel will remain a niche product.

—Mike Gikas

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