The last time TechCrunch heard from the internet-for-everyone proponents at FreedomPop, they revealed to us that they were working on an iPhone 4/4S case with a built-in WiMax radio that would give their users monthly access to free mobile broadband.
Now, according to my high-level source, the company is very close to bringing these things into the real world. Ahead of their beta launch slated for the summer, the company has just quietly begun to take pre-orders for the nifty iPhone accessory, though some of their plans for the product have changed over the past few months.
For one, they’re not running with the deposit model my source previously alluded to. Instead, they’re just going to sell the case itself for $99, and users can contact the company to return the unit and get their refund at any time. It’s functionally the same experience for the user, except without the accounting headaches that come with managing scores of deposits.
Perhaps the most notable tweak is that they’ve changed how much free bandwidth each user gets right out of the gate. The original plan was to offer 1GB of WiMax data access for free to users each month, but they’ve since dropped that “guaranteed monthly minimum” to 500MB. Sort of a bummer, I agree, but I’m told that they’re trying to err on the side of caution for now.
Glass-half-full types can take solace in the fact that the company will not neuter their free plan to below 500MB per month, and that the initial level of bandwidth allocation could actually grow over time.
If you’re concerned that 500MB/month isn’t that great, I’m also told users will be able to earn more bandwidth thanks to a social layer that FreedomPop is developing as part of the service. FreedomPop users will be able to connect with each other, and doing so nets them both of them an additional (sadly unspecified) amount of usage — especially popular (or smart) users can raise their monthly data allotment as high as 1GB.
Beyond that, users will also have the ability to share their location with their so-called FreedomFriends, but perhaps more importantly, users will be able to treat the amount of bandwidth they have at their disposal as a transferable commodity. If a friend of yours is bumping up against that 500MB limit and really doesn’t want to pay that $.01/MB overage fee, you’ll be able to transfer him or her a portion of your own monthly bandwidth allotment.
That, in short, is awesome. Larger wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T sell access to their data networks in pre-configured chunks, which often leaves their subscribers paying for more data than they actually need in a given month. The real frustration comes from the fact that the users who have paid for X amount of data access per month can’t do anything with it — the counter just resets at the end of the month at that’s that. Giving users more control over what they pay for (or don’t pay for, as the case may be) is a smart approach to working with a dumb pipe, and could help give FreedomPop users a reason to stick around.
A brief video demo of the case in action (seen above) was also passed along, and it offers up our first real look at what the darn thing looks like. Given that the case was a WiMax radio and a separate battery jammed into it, it’s understandably thick, but it doesn’t look much more offensive than some of the other hefty iPhone cases floating around out there. It doesn’t look like it would do a great job actually protecting the iPhone nestled inside it, but hey — you can’t always get what you want.