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Tech Lab

Cheap access to the Internet is in the air

Like almost everything except air, Internet access costs too much. So I could not wait to get my hands on two new products that offer “free” online access.

The quote marks are there for a reason. The two offerings, FreedomPop and Karma, require up-front cash for hot spot hardware, and offer a limited amount of no-charge bandwidth. They do not deliver blazing speed, since both use an obsolete 4G wireless cellular network, but FreedomPop and Karma are decent options for basic Internet access on a tight budget.

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FreedomPop is the more radical. The company offers 500 megabytes to one gigabyte of cellular data every month at no charge. To get more, you pay $10 per gigabyte. That is a lot cheaper than rivals like Verizon Wireless, which charges $60 for two gigs.

Karma gives users a one-time reward of one free gigabyte. After that, extra capacity costs $14 a gigabyte. But the companies do offer several ways to pick up additional megabytes without spending money.

Both get their Internet bandwidth from Clearwire, a wireless data carrier mostly owned by cellphone company Sprint Nextel Corp. Clearwire uses a 4G data technology called WiMax that works pretty well, but not nearly as fast as the latest 4G LTE systems.

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To hook up with Clearwire, you first have to purchase some hardware. FreedomPop offers three options. The Photon is a pocket-sized Wi-Fi hot spot that costs $99 and can share the Internet connection with up to eight devices at a time. FreedomPop has got an attractive promotion for the Photon; return it within a year and get a full refund.

FreedomPop also makes the Rocket, a $99 sleeve that fits around Apple Inc.’s iPod Touch multimedia players and gives them 4G access. The unit I tested, the Burst, goes on sale in March for $89. It is a large, boxy device that resembles a home Wi-Fi router, because that is what it is. While buyers of the Rocket or Photon get 500 megabytes of free bandwidth, Burst owners get a full gigabyte every month.

Karma has just one hardware option, a small Wi-Fi hot spot similar to FreedomPop’s Photon and priced at $79. It automatically connects to Clearwire and starts beaming a Wi-Fi signal. Just find FreedomPop on your device’s listing of available Wi-Fi routers and log in with a password you can set up through the company’s Internet site.

Karma is battery-powered and does not ship with an AC adapter. Instead, you plug it into a computer’s USB port to charge. Switch it on and it works much like the Burst. But when you connect to the Karma’s Wi-Fi signal, you are ordered to log on via the social network Facebook. Don’t have a Facebook account? Better get one — Karma doesn’t work any other way, though a spokesman told me the company is planning other log-in options.

To their credit, neither FreedomPop nor Karma bombard users with unwanted ads, but they deliver broadband service in only a narrow sense.

Using a speed test program on the Federal Communications Commission website, I consistently got downloads of around 1 to 1.5 megabits per second, though Karma once got up to 2.2 megabits. That is good enough for e-mail and basic Web page reading. To my surprise, it was also adequate for streaming a Netflix movie to my laptop, with decent resolution. Both companies say they will eventually offer Sprint’s much faster 4G LTE service.

But slow has benefits when you are dealing with a limited pool of free data. Karma estimates that a gigabyte is the equivalent of viewing a thousand Web pages, or downloading 500 e-mails, each with a two-megabyte attachment. Used that way, the free bandwidth provided by Karma could last some people a few months. After that, they can buy more. But every time a new user signs onto a Karma hot spot, its owner gets another 100 megabytes for free.

Spend enough time in airports and train stations, and you could build up a stockpile.

FreedomPop also gives out free bandwidth for encouraging others to sign up. In addition, visit its website and earn megabytes by signing up for offers from companies such as GoDaddy.com, LoJack Corp., and even Google Inc.

There is a lot of free Internet these days, at Starbucks coffee shops, McDonald’s restaurants, and thousands of other hangouts.

Still, FreedomPop and Karma are good ways to inject some cheap bandwidth into the many places that still need it — including, perhaps, your living room.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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