It goes without saying these days that the more you can be online, the better. However, not all tablets or laptops are set up for wireless connections. If you're not at home or work, or in a venue that offers Wi-Fi, you may be out of luck.
Unless you are equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot.
These small, very mobile devices are essentially portable routers that connect to a wireless Internet service provider and provide Wi-Fi access. Some are directly associated with one of the major service providers; others piggyback on existing networks in order to provide lower-cost connectivity.
I tried out two recently introduced hotspots: the FreedomPop Photon and the Verizon Wireless JetPack MiFi 5510L. One is from a smaller company that boasts of "100% Free High Speed Internet" and the other is from a major telecommunications vendor. While both offer reasonable Wi-Fi connectivity, in this case it's very true that you get what you pay for. Which you select will depend on what you actually need.
FreedomPop is a communications company that says it's trying to buck the trend of high-cost Internet access by offering its customers 500MB of free 4G wireless networking per month with its mobile devices. (It also recently introduced a home router with several plans, starting at 1GB of free data each month.)
Even the devices are free of charge -- sort of. When you order either the Freedom Stick Bolt (a USB modem that plugs into your device) or the Photon (a Wi-Fi hotspot that supports up to 8 devices at once), you have to give the vendor a "refundable security deposit" of $49 for the former and $99 for the latter. There is also a Wi-Fi-equipped case for the iPod Touch that costs $99.
The Photon -- the product I reviewed -- is a small, lightweight device about 2.6-in. square and 0.5-in. deep, weighing 2.1 oz. Besides the power button, there are three LEDs: one to indicate the power status, one to indicate the strength of the 4G signal and a third that shows when the Wi-Fi hotspot is available.
I liked the Photon: It is small, simple and does what it's supposed to do. After I turned it on, it took about a minute for the hotspot light to turn green; after that, I had no trouble connecting it with several devices, and it handled most everyday Web chores without a problem. It even played a YouTube video (the trailer for The Hobbit, which has a fair amount of action) with only the occasional brief lag.
Currently, though, service availability is not very widespread. FreedomPop currently uses Clearwire's 4G WiMax network; if you look at FreedomPop's coverage map, it's limited mostly to major urban centers (and even there, you have gaps -- I noticed a few dead areas in midtown Manhattan).
According to a company rep, FreedomPop plans to offer more widely accessible and faster communications over Sprint's network later this year: 4G LTE service sometime in the third quarter of 2013 and 3G service for areas not covered by 4G (although there is no word yet when that will be available).
[[Update: FreedomPop has introduced its Overdrive Pro hot spot ($39.99) that offers 3G/4G service over the Sprint network. While the free plan still offers only 500MB of 4G service, the Pro plan now offers up to 500MB of 3G/4G coverage for $3.99/month and the Premium plan offers up to 2GB of 3G/4G for $19.99/month.]]
Prices and plans
FreedomPop may offer a certain amount of free connectivity, but this is not a non-commercial venture. Currently, the free Basic model offers 500MB per month; extra data will cost 2 cents for each additional 1MB. And watch for the small print -- you can't simply drop the FreedomPop device in a drawer and use it once every couple of months. If you don't use at least 5MB a month, you're charged a 99-cent inactivity fee.
There are two paid plans as well: The Casual plan charges $17.99/month for 2GB, while the Premiere plan gives you 4GB a month for $28.99. Both charge 1 cent/MB for any usage above that allowed by the plan.
No matter which plan you use, you are offered FreedomPop Speed Plus, which promises upload speeds up to 1.5Mbps and download speeds up to 12Mbps -- for an extra $3.99/mo. (According to a FreedomPop representative, download speeds normally average between 5Mbps and 8Mbps.)
If you're on a budget and/or don't want to pay for any of the plans, there are a variety of ways to add more megabytes. For example, if you invite a friend to join, you get an additional 50MB of data per month as long as that friend is a FreedomPop user. You can also earn data by taking part in a number of promotions (most of which I found too inconvenient to consider, since they involved giving my credit card number).
Once you've gotten through all the various payment plans, promotions and the registration page -- even if you choose the free Basic plan, you have to give them a credit card number -- FreedomPop should work nicely for the person who needs only occasional Wi-Fi access.