Say NetZero to anyone who started playing around on the Internet in 1998 and they'll likely know exactly what you're talking about. The company was the first to provide free dial-up Internet service.
Fourteen years later, the California-based company is now entering the world of modern Internet services with 4G mobile cellular offerings. And it's not dropping that memorable "free" aspect.
"We have always been a company that has been designed to serve the masses of America," CEO and president of NetZero Mark Goldston said. "We are now doing that with mobile broadband, in what amounts to one fifth the price that the big boys are charging. We have no contracts, no commitments, no overage charges."
NetZero has announced two mobile wireless devices -- a $99.95 NetZero Hotspot, which allows you to connect via Wi-Fi to the 4G connection, and a $40.95 NetZero 4G Stick, which plugs into your laptop to provide 4G service. Purchase the devices and you get 200MB of free data every month.
However, while the promise of free sounds alluring, 200MB isn't all that much. In fact, you'd burn through that before you hit two minutes of streaming video. According to Verizon's data usage calculator, visiting 25 webpages a day is equal to about 750MB.
Goldston acknowledges that the free plan isn't going to suffice for most. "We are using the free as a way to hold peoples' hands to show them how to use mobile broadband. It's not meant to be a home Internet replacement."
He also explained that users will be told when they have run out of data and they can throttle down the service using software so they use less data when they are connected.
But even so, NetZero's paid offerings are competitive with ones you'd find from Verizon or AT&T. It offers 500MB for $9.95 a month, 1GB for $19.95, 2GB for $34.95, and 4GB for $49.95. In comparison, AT&T and Verizon charge $50 a month for 5GB of LTE service.
However, while Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all require you sign a two-year contract -- so you are locked into paying for data every month for two years -- NetZero lets users pay month to month. If users don't want to pay after their free 200MB of data is depleted they don't have to; they can just wait until next month. Virgin Mobile provides similar no-contract plans. NetZero's free 200MB offer will only last for a year.
However, NetZero's speeds will be slower than Verizon or AT&T's LTE. Its devices use Clearwires's WiMAX network, not the faster LTE networks used by Verizon and AT&T. WiMAX is still considered to be a fourth-generation or 4G cellular network.
NetZero still has an active dial-up business, which serves rural areas, but Goldston says this is just the start of the company's reinvention. "This is our intial foray, we will be looking to find ways to expand. We will continue to forge partnerships."
The new 4G devices are available now from NetZero's website.