FreedomPop split shows risks of free phone service

After crossing the finish line in the race to the bottom, some free cell service companies have run their course or seem to run away. But you can still get a trial size bottle of minutes or megabytes for less than $10 per month.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story noted that FreedomPop had shut down and that service had been discontinued. In fact, Red Pocket Mobile has acquired the brand and the majority of FreedomPop subscribers for whom it is continuing the service.

In the 90s, companies sought to gain users by offering everything from free PCs to free dialup internet service (incredibly, still around). In the past few years, a trio of companies has tried offering limited free access to cellular service. Some of them provided good options for an emergency phone to, say, keep in a car if you happened to leave your main device at home or lose it or to give to a younger child who needed only occasional usage.

Some, though, have fallen by the wayside. An early entrant to drop off was RingPlus, a Sprint MVNO that offered 1,000 texts and minutes of voice as well as a gigabyte of data for free with a one-time $25 payment. However, the model could not be sustained, and the company went out of business in early 2017.

More recent attempts included CellNuvo and FreedomPop. CellNuvo wasn't a carrier or MVNO, but an app that offered simple games that were played to earn credits that could be applied toward free phone service from the big national carriers. Earlier this year, though, users complained of their games offering lower payouts that made it more difficult to sustain free phone service, and its app was recently removed from the Google Play store. Its website, however, is still promoting the service.

FreedomPop is an MVNO that has offered small allocations of talk, text, and data for free with a focus on upselling and viral marketing. In what may be a consequence of the proposed Sprint-T-Mobile merger, FreedomPop's parent company sold off the service provider in order to make a bid for Boost Mobile, the Sprint brand that would be sold off should the merger be approved. That led to a split. The FreedomPop brand and most subscribers were transitioned to Red Pocket Mobile, which plans to not only continue the service but expand it to work on more phones. However, those customers using FreedomPop on Sprint were transitioned to low-cost-but-not-free MVNO Ting with no specifics about how to continue their FreedomPop subscription.

The limits of these ad-supported mobile services have no bearing on services intended for those who may need them most. Lifeline wireless services offered by carriers such as Safelink Wireless (offered by Tracfone Wireless) and Assurance Wireless (offered by Sprint) to low-income consumers who qualify for federal programs such as Medicaid and SNAP.

For others, some of the least expensive remaining choices come from MVNOs, such as Tello and US Mobile, which allow you to customize plans down to barebones levels. Tello, which requires a CDMA-capable phone, goes as low as $5 per month, which will net either 100 minutes of voice and unlimited texts and no data or 500MB of data with no voice or texts. US Mobile offers even more flexibility and lower floors, which start at monthly fees of  $1.50 for 40 texts, $2 for 100MB of data, and $2,50 for 40 minutes of voice. The carrier also works with a broader range of phones. Both services may require an extra fee to obtain their SIM cards or compatible phones if you don't have one.

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