Katherine Boehret

Mobile Internet Access — No Strings Attached

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and the tech community has had some dramatic ones, from Apple’s historic resurrection to Nintendo’s Wii-fueled revival. Enter NetZero, which first made a splash over 10 years ago offering free dial-up access in exchange for watching ads.

This week, the company is looking to come back by applying its budget-conscious approach to mobile broadband. I tested NetZero’s $100 4G HotSpot for use with up to eight devices; a $50 4G Stick that plugs into one machine’s USB port is also available. These two gadgets provide Internet access using one of five month-to-month data plans, including a free 200 megabytes a month for the first 12 months. NetZero doesn’t require contracts and doesn’t charge activation fees.

If you use more data per month than your account allows, you get cut off rather than paying overage fees. Paid-account users see a pop-up message offering account upgrades or pricey chunks of additional data, called “Top Ups,” that cost $7 for 250 megabytes or $20 for 1 gigabyte.

The service runs on Clearwire’s WiMax, which is available in 80 cities. NetZero’s monthly data plans cost $10 for the 500-megabyte Basic; $20 for the 1-gigabyte Plus; $35 for the 2-gigabyte Pro; and $50 for the 4-gigabyte Platinum.

To compare, hot-spot devices that run on AT&T and Verizon’s arguably better 4G networks cost $270 without a two-year contract. With a two-year contract, they’re $70 and $20, respectively. Both AT&T and Verizon offer a 5-gigabyte plan for $50 a month, and Verizon also offers a 10-gigabyte plan for $80 a month.

DSOLUTION

NetZero’s 4G HotSpot
DSOLUTION

AT&T’s Mobile Hotspot Elevate 4G
DSOLUTION

Verizon’s Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi

I like where NetZero is going with this idea. High-speed USB sticks and portable hot spots have been around for years, eliminating the need to hunt for good Wi-Fi or to stay in one place with a fast connection. But their monthly fees — on top of monthly phone bills and home Internet bills — made them a luxury item.

NetZero faces three hurdles: People don’t know if the network is good in their area; most users have no idea how much data they use per month; and the prices for add-on data are very expensive.

The company tries to solve network questions by encouraging people to check its coverage map at its website. My home in Washington, D.C., doesn’t get NetZero’s 4G mobile broadband coverage, but a coverage map shows it works a half-block away. A colleague’s house in Maryland had coverage but coverage wasn’t available two blocks away, according to the NetZero map. I had better luck at my office near the White House.

Its solution for slowing data hogs is to offer two speed settings on NetZero.com: LightSpeed and WarpSpeed. LightSpeed uses download speeds of up to 1 megabit a second and WarpSpeed downloads up to 10 megabits a second. Switching speeds is supposed to help people from using up their data too quickly. Most people, though, won’t want to willingly slow down their own connection, or won’t remember to do so. But people may find they can sparingly use their monthly allotment of NetZero data, then revert to WiFi if they run out.

During my test of the 4G HotSpot’s battery life, I used 1.26 gigabytes with my account set on WarpSpeed. (Battery life lasted about 6 hours and 40 minutes, which was in line with the company estimate.) I watched videos, browsed the Web, checked email and used apps — and I was already nearing half of my 4-gigabyte Platinum plan monthly data allotment. For most of that time, I had one device connected to the 4G HotSpot, but I occasionally used three other devices at the same time.

NetZero’s network speeds felt fast, though I saw an occasional hiccup while watching videos. I used Ookla’s Speedtest app to measure my speeds and averaged 4.4 megabits per second in downloads, including one that was a blazing 10.7 megabits per second and another that crawled along at 0.6 megabit per second. My upload speeds were much less impressive, averaging just half a megabit per second.

The little black box that is the NetZero 4G HotSpot is surprisingly user-friendly. It comes with a wall plug for recharging, and its display shows the number of devices using it at any given time as well as the network name and password. This display also shows how much data has been used in the current month. A helpful chime sounds whenever the HotSpot is turned on or off, as well as whenever a device connects or disconnects from it. A Mute button on the side will turn all sound off.

The 4G HotSpot’s range is supposed to be up to 150 feet, and this was about right in my experience. If it hasn’t been used for 30 minutes and isn’t connected to any Wi-Fi enabled devices, it goes into Sleep Mode as a means for saving battery.

NetZero 4G HotSpot

AT&T Mobile Hotspot Elevate 4G

Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi

Price Without Contract $99.95 $269.99 $269.99
Device Price w/Two-Year Contract Not Available $69.99 $19.99 after $50 discount
Monthly Data Plan Costs (w/ Purchase of Device) 200MB for free*, $9.95 for 500MB, $19.95 for 1GB, $34.95 for 2GB or $49.95 for 4GB 5GB for $50 5GB for $50 or 10GB for $80
Overage fees? No automatic fees. Top Ups can be added for $19.95 a GB or $6.95 per 250 MBs. $10 per GB, automatically charged $10 per GB automatically charged

Email Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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