I wrote last July about some scary data roaming plan charges I incurred while traveling in Ireland ($512 to be exact). While this situation was resolved by adjusting my wireless data plan, I still wound up paying an extra $25 to my wireless carrier for the overseas roaming charges. I considered myself lucky, of course.
My wife and I are thinking about a trip to jolly ol' England next, so I decided to do some research to estimate how much I might expect to pay for data connectivity while abroad. As it turns out, the answer may well be... nothing (aside from the cost of a subscriber identity module or SIM card), thanks to a company called FreedomPop.
Who is FreedomPop?
FreedomPop is a US wireless internet and mobile broadband provider focused on providing free mobile services with no contract. They are expanding their coverage to Europe and beta invites are now available for the United Kingdom. This means residents within the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) can utilize 200 MBs of data, 200 voice minutes and 200 text messages per month at no cost.
FreedomPop provides free unlimited calls and text between users of their service as well as the ability to add local phone numbers from over 60 countries so people located there can contact you at local calling rates. Additionally, they allow unused data to roll over and include some security options such as the capability to browse anonymously.
Here's a look at FreedomPop's initial coverage map for expansion into the UK:
Getting to my point about my proposed upcoming trip, FreedomPop provides a global SIM card called Jetsetter which includes free international roaming capability for travelers like me who intend to go abroad.
Jetsetter offers 100 MB of free data per month, presently within the UK, Spain and France, but they intend to expand their scope to over 50 additional countries within the next two years. Beta invites are also available for this product. If you need more data you can add a paid plan of 1 Gb/month for $10 per month or 2 Gb for $18.99 per month. It does not require replacing one's current carrier.
To put this into a more personal context, I generally use about 250 Mb of data per week, but I have many chatty apps and services running on my phone. Were I to go overseas for a week I would vastly throttle down my bandwidth usage and of course take advantage of free Wi-Fi to ensure I didn't consume more than the free 100 Mb permitted by Jetsetter. It's completely doable in my view.
While you can use your own device with FreedomPop's service (assuming it is one of several supported Apple, HTC or Samsung models) or the Jetsetter SIM card, they also sell mobile devices such as Samsung Galaxy smartphones and tablets as well as hotspots and hubs, making them a complete provider from hardware to services. You can also port your own phone number onto a FreedomPop-purchased device if you choose.
How does FreedomPop work?
For regular local users, FreedomPop provides apps for Android and iOS devices which provide access to data, voice and texting services. Travelers insert the Jetsetter SIM card in their phone to utilize the same features - this replaces the existing carrier's SIM card - and there is no throttling of data speed, as is the case with Google.
I got in touch with FreedomPop to ask some clarifying questions about the services they provide. Here's the transcript of our discussion:
Scott Matteson: "Is there a base fee for the standard FreedomPop service?"
FreedomPop: "No, FreedomPop services are free with 500MB of data, 500 texts and 200 voice minutes each month as the base package. (200MB of data, 200 texts and 200 voice minutes for the UK)."
SM: "Does Jetsetter provide hotspot functionality for other devices to connect through?"
FreedomPop: "Yes, it can be used in a hotspot device or a phone that tethers."
SM: "How much does it cost if you go over the allotted monthly amount of data/calls/texts? Does this apply to calls or texts sent vs received (e.g. is there a price differential)?"
FreedomPop: "If you go over you can upgrade into unlimited calls and texts, there is an annual plan for $6.67 per month ($80 per year) or monthly for $10.99 per month."
SM: "How does FreedomPoP make money/how can it provide free service this way?"
FreedomPop: "The magic of the FreedomPop model is in the additional services we sell on top of data to differentiate and add more value, e.g.:
- Anonymous browsing - protects users from 3rd parties, spyware and hackers
- Compression - compresses data usage essentially allowing users to get more out of their free data
- Wi-Fi Roaming - auto access to over 9M public hot posts
- Get 2nd international lines on single phone, e.g. in US with friends and family in UK, can get a UK number set up that will ring the same phone
- Data rollover
Also, we are the first carrier to leverage VoIP where network speeds are strong which gives us a lower cost base on voice and text."
SM: "How many users are on FreedomPop?"
FreedomPop: "Approaching 1M users by end of year."
SM: "What are the average upload/download data speeds?"
FreedomPop: "Where there is LTE it is 4-6 mbps. On 3G, 500-1000 kbps."
SM: "Is there an advantage to purchasing devices from FreedomPop vs BYOD?"
FreedomPop: "Customers can have a better user experience if they purchase their device from us, since we can integrate our software into device ROM so eliminates any friction. Also our device prices are generally 30-40% lower than what can find elsewhere on Amazon, eBay etc."
The days are long gone when one phone carrier (The Bell Telephone company or "Ma Bell" as it used to be called) ruled over all. Today it's a competitive market among many diverse mobile providers. Having plenty of choices is good for both the consumer and the providers, since it keeps them on their toes and encourages innovation, lower prices and snazzy "gotta have" features.
As a writer, I'm in favor of anything that leaves me with more cash for a pint or two of beer instead of paying exorbitant carrier charges while on holiday, as the English put it. Should my trip take place as planned I'll circle back with feedback on how FreedomPop worked for me.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.