When it comes to the internet boom of the late 90s there are two things I remember. You could not go anywhere without seeing those AOL Free Minutes discs or advertisements for NetZero’s Free Dial Up service.  While AOL is still operating today in a much smaller capacity I assumed that NetZero had closed its doors years ago. A logical assumption given that they promoted “Free” internet service which generally comes to an end when the investor’s money runs dry.

Almost fifteen years later NetZero is back or according to the parent company United Online they never actually went away. They apparently kept the same marketing and advertising executives from the late 90s as they are once again promoting Free Internet, although this time with newer technology. They will be providing Free Wireless internet service through ClearWire Corp’s wireless network.  ClearWire owns the largest wireless network in the world and even provides the wireless data service for Sprint’s 4G network in the United States. I have used ClearWire’s network myself and although I did see fluctuations based on my location (home vs work) they do run a rather stable network. Their biggest issues? ClearWire’s signal can have trouble penetrating into large buildings such as Skycrapers and Large Apartment/Condo buildings. However if you are leaving in a condo in downtown LA, Chicago, or New York it is unlikely you are coming here looking for free internet service.

Please Define “Free Internet” Service

Nothing is ever completely free so I will breakdown how it works. NetZero will provide you with an account eligible for free monthly internet service for up to one year. However in order to receive their free wireless service you must have a compatible wireless adapter which they will provide to you at a cost of $49.95 plus $19.95/month for shipping and handling. So in the end you are actually paying $5.83/month ($69.95/year over twelve months) for their internet service which is still quite a deal. NetZero’s hope is that at the end of the twelve months you would convert to a retail account. (NetZero Terms of Service)

What happens at the end of those 12 months?

At the end of the twelve months your free package will disappear and you will automatically be put into their comparable paid plan. Standard practice for any company providing free or trial service so it is important that should you not be interested in keeping the service you set a reminder to cancel thirty days from your 12 month date. Also, although this is proprietary equipment (wireless data device) which you likely will be unable to use with other providers you will be unable to return this to NetZero for a refund. You will be purchasing this equipment vs putting down a deposit so that is why I broke out the cost above at $5.83/month.

What type of package am I receiving with the “Free Option”?

Here is the “catch” of this arrangement. The free package will only allow you 200 megabytes worth of data per month.  Once you reach the cap it will simply stop working until the next month when you are refilled with an additional 200 megabytes. That is extremely small in today’s day in age when you take into consideration the amount of video which is watch on the internet. So if you plan to watch movies on NetFlix, download songs, or watch YouTube clips all day the free option is not for you.

So who would actually use this “Free Service”?

While I personally would not be able to survive on 200 megabytes a day let alone a month this plan can still be beneficial for a lot of people. In today’s day in age you cannot live without email. Whether it is to keep up with family or possibly looking for a new job it is essential that you have access to email service on a regular basis. This plan is perfect for those who simply want to check and send a few emails daily.

For those on a fixed income or currently out of work this is a great short term alternative for you. If you are looking for employment you will need access to the internet to search for jobs and respond to emails from possible employers. Instead of driving to the neighbors or local library to use the internet (spending gas money) you can do it from the comfort of your home at about the same cost.

Also this is not a bad alternative for an emergency backup or if you travel frequently. Again you are limited to 200M but if you just need to check emails or a few websites this will do the trick. It is a small USB device that you plug into your computer or laptop and can use anywhere the NetZero/ClearWire network is available.

Let’s wrap this up……quickly what are the pros and cons to this service:

Pros:

  • The true cost is only $5.83/month when you factor in the cost of the USB Wireless Device.
  • The “free service” pricing can be used for up to 12 months.
  • Although you will be automatically renewed into a new package at the end of 12 months if you do not cancel, this is not a contract and you have the opportunity to cancel at any time prior to the end of the twelve months
  • It is wireless based so you can take it anywhere their NetZero/ClearWire network is available

 Cons:

  • While the actual service is free you must purchase a Wireless USB device for $69.90 ($49.95 plus $19.95 for Shipping and Handling). This must be purchased from NetZero via a credit or debit card.
  • The data limit is 200 megabytes per month which allows for only email and basic web surfing.
  • If at any time you upgrade to a paid package you will be unable to revert back to the free 12 month service.
  • At the end of the twelve months you must either convert to a paid package or cancel the account. You will NOT receive a refund for the equipment previously purchased.

Disclaimers: 

  • There is no mention of a money back guarantee for the free service if you are unable to receive wireless service. NetZero currently offers this service in 30 states and generally near populated areas.  See the Net Zero coverage map here for more details.
  • Per the NetZero Website: “While NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband is an excellent way for you to connect while on-the-go, it isn’t meant as a replacement for your home dial-up, DSL, or cable Internet connection. NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband is designed as a supplementary service to be used outside the home when you need to connect, but don’t want the hassle or risk of using public Wi-Fi.” In layman’s terms, NetZero does not provide large enough packages for high video consumption and extensive internet use.

While those heavy users will initially laugh at this offer from NetZero they are engaging an untapped market. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project research group close 33% of Americans are still without Broadband Internet at home. The overwhelming response to what is causing such a large gap is a lack of affordable internet service especially in rural areas. This plan does provide an option for those individuals who may not be regular users of the internet but from time to time need the ability to check their email or quickly view a website.  It may not allow them to watch Netflix or play video games but it will not leave them in the dark either.

In the mobile broadband market (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint), where their plans are actually marketed towards, NetZero is extremely competitive. See this link (NetZero Comparison) to compare their pricing to AT&T and Verizon. I have no doubt that they will be able to grab this market share against the higher priced telecom companies but whether they make the jump back to the residential market will be dependent on the expansion of ClearWire’s network outside of the major metropolitan cities.

As always if you have questions about this article or need help finding a better fit to your internet needs please feel free to contact me directly via the “Contact Us” or “Help Review My Bills” section of our site.

For those interested in learning more or taking advantage of the NetZero free internet package here is the link directly to their plan page….NetZero Plan Page

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