NetZero to offer free WiMAX to US users, for a year
Riding on Clearwire's network, the ISP adds mobile broadband to its free dial-up services
Published: 20 March, 2012
Free wireless broadband models have most commonly run on Wi-Fi, but NetZero has announced a WiMAX-based service, which provides subscribers with up to 200Mbytes a month for one year at no cost (except a $50 dongle or $100 personal router). The US company, which was the first ISP to offer free dial-up access, back in 1998, is transferring the proposition to wireless, riding on Clearwire's network.
The new plan, unlike its popular dial-up predecessor, does not stay free indefinitely - after the first year, users have to sign up for a paid subscription, with prices starting at $9.95 a month, or quite the service.
Ironically, now that Clearwire stands to lose its powerful cable customers, it may deliver some of its original promises of more open wireless services. Partners like NetZero and another customer, FreedomPop, hark back to the original, somewhat idealistic model which the WiMAX wholesaler touted in its early days, and which attracted Intel and Google to its cause - to support a wide range of MVNOs, which would provide strong alternatives to the established cellco model, offering open access, an end to contracts, and even free services. Those hopes became submerged under the more conventional agenda of Sprint and the cablecos, which have now defected to Verizon. This leaves Clearwire heavily dependent on its largest shareholder, but also looking around for a host of smaller customers, some of which it may pick up from LightSquared's presumed failure.
For its part, NetZero sees wireless broadband as a way to get back into the mainstream, having seen the steady decline of its once-major dial-up business as broadband became more prevalent. It now focuses on two niches - low income and deeply rural users - but now aims to appeal to a larger base of citizens. There are far more people who cannot afford mobile broadband subscriptions - still "a very expensive elite service", as CEO Mark Goldston puts it, than home broadband, and most of these people rely on public hotspots. He told GigaOM: "We're not going after home internet replacement. We're not going after the business user. We're going after those 100m public Wi-Fi users."
Rather than relying on advertising support, as some free Wi-Fi plans did a few years ago, NetZero will treat the free first year as a loss leader in the hope of converting a large number of users at least to the most affordable plans after that. The paid offerings start at $9.95 a month for 500Mbytes and go up to $49.95 for 4Gbytes.
Another Clearwire wholesale customer, FreedomPop - which defected from LightSquared in February - plans a 'freemium' model under which the paying subscribers effectively subsidize a bare-bones free service for other users. The company is backed by Skype and Kazaa co-founder Niklas Zennstrom, and may also turn to ad support.