Free Mobile Broadband Internet AccessYou probably have a pretty reliable and reasonably fast Internet connection at home, but what are you supposed to do when you are trying to live the smart life on the road? We’ve come to rely on the web for so many things that we do and so it is of utmost importance that you have a good Internet connection while traveling. This is particularly true for me, as a Canadian, when I travel through the United States. Roaming charges are far too high, so I always opt for some kind of prepaid option.

One of the more interesting developments this year is the rise of at least two free mobile broadband Internet providers. Yes, you read that correctly: free. Is it possible to have fast and reliable Internet without having to fork out any money at all? Let’s have a look at the possibilities.

NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband

NetZero 4G Monthly Plans

NetZero 4G Monthly Plans

You might remember the NetZero brand from the days that they offered ad-supported home Internet service. With NetZero, you could get on the web for free. That part of their business has more or less gone out to pasture, but the brand has been revitalized with something called NetZero 4G. There are no contracts, no commitments, and you can change plans at any time, but the crux of it is that you can have mobile broadband Internet in a very affordable way.

How affordable? The starter plan is just $0.00 per month. It’s free. The catch is that you’re capped at just 200MB per month (no rollover) and the free plan only applies to your first 12 months of service. After that, you’ll have to upgrade to one of the paid plans, starting at $9.95 per month for 500MB. That’s not a lot of data either, but it should be reasonably suitable for light travel use. You will need to buy a USB modem or wireless hotspot, though, and both of these effectively operate on the Clearwire WiMAX network. That’s the other catch: coverage is limited to major metropolitan areas and, even then, it can be spotty. But yeah, you get a year’s worth of service for free.

FreedomPop Free Wireless Internet

FreedomPop Free Mobile Broadband

FreedomPop Free Mobile Broadband

Perhaps even more compelling is a brand new service called FreedomPop. It’s currently only in beta, but it operates in fundamentally the same way as NetZero 4G. There’re at least two key differences, though. First, the free plan has 500MB of data. Secondly, you can stay on that free plan for as long as you want, beyond the one-year limit of NetZero 4G.

The other kicker is that you can get the USB modem or wireless hotspot for free…sort of. You don’t actually buy the mobile broadband device. Instead, you put down a security deposit for it, which is presumably refundable if you ever choose to cancel your service. There are also upgrades to 2GB and 4GB plans starting at $17.99 per month.

Unfortunately, much like NetZero, FreedomPop’s coverage area isn’t very good and there are reports that the Sprint WiMAX network (which FreedomPop uses) has a hard time penetrating certain buildings or other obstacles. Since your devices are connecting using Wi-Fi, you can’t use a data usage monitor like Onavo either. Strangely, there’s an admin page that you can view when connected to the FreedomPop modem, but it doesn’t show your usage. The good news is that FreedomPop has signed a five-year contract with Sprint to use the LTE network and they hope to have that running by 2013.

T-Mobile No Contract Mobile Broadband

T-Mobile 4G Mobile Broadband Plans

T-Mobile 4G Mobile Broadband Plans

No, T-Mobile isn’t free, but it could be one of the better no contract, pay-as-you-go wireless data options for people traveling through the United States. The prepaid mobile broadband plans start at $15 for 300MB with a 7-day expiration period and $25 for 1.5GB with a one month expiration period. A mobile hotspot can be purchased for about $100 and service, both in terms of coverage and speed, are very good in my own personal experience. The key is that you only buy data when you need it, so if you’re only an occassional traveler, prepaid data is really the way to go.

It will be interesting to see how these free mobile broadband Internet providers shake up the industry though, especially after FreedomPop starts offering service by way of the super-fast Sprint LTE network next year.

Image credit: beaugiles / Flickr