NetZero's 4G HotSpot supports up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including tablets and smartphones, within a 150-foot range. (AP)
San Francisco, CA (USA Today) -- As the need to constantly check e-mail, Twitter and YouTube videos grows, more options are becoming available for entry-level wireless broadband users who don't want to be locked into a pricey long-term contract.
NetZero, which shook the Internet business in the 1990s with its free dial-up service, is the latest company to enter the fray. And it's drastically lowering the price for Internet broadband connections delivered over the air.
The company joins FreedomPop and Virgin Mobile, among others, that plan to or are offering wireless Internet data on prepaid plans or at prices that are cheaper than major wireless carriers.
"There's definitely a push to bring a lot of people into the entry market," says Weston Henderek, an analyst at Current Analysis. "
NetZero will introduce no-contracts plans for laptop and tablet computer owners in several pricing tiers. To sign up for its "free" plan, customers pay $50 for a wireless USB card and receive up to 200 megabytes per month, enough for e-mail and Web-surfing but insufficient for video streaming.
Owners of tablets with no USB port can pay $100 for "a mobile hot spot" that allows up to eight Wi-Fi-equipped devices to connect to the Internet, and provides up to 200 MB of data per month.
Once customers go over the limit, the service will stop until the next month. Plus they'll get messages encouraging them to switch to more expensive monthly plans.
The "free" plans will last only 12 months, at which point customers will be dropped or required to sign up for other plans - ranging from $9.95 a month for 500 MB to $49.95 for 4 gigabytes.
"It's a teaser plan," says Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "They're not giving away a lot of bandwidth with this, and they hope customers upgrade to a bigger plan. But this is serving an underserved market."
Mark Goldston, CEO of NetZero parent United Online, says he's not targeting customers satisfied with pricier plans from major wireless carriers, but sees opportunities in users who rely on public Wi-Fi hot spots or tablet owners who can't afford a monthly data plan. "We have a chance to allow Joe and Jane of America to experience (wireless) broadband," Goldston says. "
NetZero doesn't operate its own wireless network but will rent it from Clearwire, which also serves Sprint Nextel.
By Roger Yu, USA TODAY