NetZero, a provider known for being the bitter clinger to dial-up Internet service, has decided to leapfrog the competition into the 21st Century. The provider today announced NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband, the first free 4G network access in the nation.
Their new service partners with Clearwire to provide 200 MB of free 4G WiMAX per month, to each of its new USB modems and portable hotspot devices
The ISP will offer five tiers of no-contract pricing. In addition to the free 200 MB tier, the provider will offer 500 MB for $9.95 per month, 1 GB for $19.95 per month, 2 GB for $34.95 per month, and 4 GB for $49.95 per month.
Obviously, the highest plan on NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband becomes a bit of highway robbery. Clearwire’s own CLEAR 4G brand offers the same exact service, from the same exact towers, only charging $49.99 per month for unlimited 4G WiMAX service. That extra four cents delivers potentially hundreds of gigabytes of extra bandwidth.
However, the lower-tier plans will undoubtedly become game changers in the wireless industry. Google partnered with Verizon Wireless to offer 150 MB of 3G EV-DO data free each month, to each Chromebook sold. However, that cannot be shared with other devices. NetZero becomes the first 4G provider to only charge for the cost of a modem, and net free data each month.
And the modems are priced competitively, too. The USB WiMAX modem will retail for $49.95, and the rebranded Clear Spot Apollo hotspot will run $99.95. These prices are in-line, and possibly at times cheaper than Clearwire’s own pricing for the same hardware, with free service included as well.
There is a catch, unfortunately. Quoting the fine print:
Access to the Free plan expires twelve (12) months from the date of initial registration and may not be renewed.
Which means that the plan is not, actually, free. You have to buy a new modem each year to reset the service. Still, at slightly over four dollars per month amortized out, the plan is still far cheaper than alternative 3G/4G prepaid solutions offered by other carriers or MVNOs.
One major question mark in all of this is NetZero and Clearwire’s relationship. Clearwire is poised to roll out LTE service, which means its WiMAX network may be hanging around for longer than many previously thought. With Clearwire aggressively wholesaling its WiMAX network, it may be attempting to use it as a form of price discrimination.
With first-party end-user customers signing up for Clearwire LTE, Clearwire can argue that its MVNO partners offer a value proposition, albeit with slower bandwidth speeds from the same towers.
If so, the real question will be if Clearwire plans to expand its existing WiMAX network, as it expands LTE into new territories. Providers like NetZero probably already know the answer to that question, but it would be a real pain to have to buy another LTE modem within that first year to benefit from new coverage or speeds.