FreedomPop launches $5 unlimited Wi-Fi service, plans Wi-Fi phone

The plan can supplement cellular service from FreedomPop or other mobile operators

Upstart mobile carrier FreedomPop is adding an unlimited data, voice and messaging plan for US$5 per month using Wi-Fi hotspots, and it plans to sell a Wi-Fi-only phone to use on the service.

The plan is intended more as a supplement to cellular service from FreedomPop and other carriers than as a customer's only mobile plan. But as long as they're in range of one of the nearly 10 million hotspots, subscribers will be able to use it for calls and messaging as well as data services. FreedomPop sees enough potential interest in Wi-Fi calling that it plans to introduce a Wi-Fi handset later this year, priced around $50, CEO Stephen Stokols said.

FreedomPop is just the latest service provider to take advantage of Wi-Fi. Most carriers already use it to ease the burden on their expensive cellular networks, because Wi-Fi operates on unlicensed frequencies that no one has to pay for. But instead of giving itself a break with Wi-Fi, FreedomPop says it can give consumers a way to save on their regular mobile plans.

FreedomPop, which offers plans starting at 500MB of data per month for free, doesn't have its own cellular network. Instead, the company resells capacity on Sprint's infrastructure. This gives FreedomPop subscribers coverage wherever Sprint operates, but it means they have to have a Sprint-compatible phone, or buy one from FreedomPop, to use the service. The company sells several models of phones, including Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy models, as well a FreedomPop tablet.

The Wi-Fi plan works with any smartphone, so subscribers -- or former subscribers -- of any carrier can take advantage of it. With unlimited data, voice and messaging to fall back on whenever they're in range of the Wi-Fi network, those subscribers may be able to buy a cheaper plan from their cellular carrier. There are about 200 million "abandoned" phones that consumers could start up again to take advantage of the Wi-Fi plan, Stokols said.

As with its cellular service, FreedomPop turned to partners for Wi-Fi. The network consists of about 10 million hotspots operated by Google, AT&T, cable operators and other companies, with locations including Starbucks and McDonald's. The hotspots provide deep coverage in major urban areas, Stokols said. Within six months, the company expects to have access to 25 million hotspots.

FreedomPop's mobile app takes subscribers onto Wi-Fi networks automatically, so they never have to find a network name or log in, Stokols said. The company uses its own VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) software to allow calls over any data network. Those calls stay connected when a subscriber goes from a cellular connection to a Wi-Fi network and vice versa, according to Stokols.

"We try to make a Wi-Fi network look like a cellular network, from a user's perspective," he said.

There's a standard technology for automatically joining Wi-Fi hotspots and moving between them, called Hotspot 2.0 or Passpoint, but FreedomPop isn't using it yet. Most networks still aren't equipped for it, and it will be a few years before most are, Stokols said. When networks do get it, that will save FreedomPop developers a lot of work coding the company's own apps to provide that seamless experience, Stokols said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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