Rarely do I, even in casual conversation, refer to something as the “best thing ever.” And yet I’m fairly certain I’ve used that epithet a few dozen times in gushing to friends, acquaintances, and strangers about my latest toy: the Freedom Stick 4G from FreedomPop. “Go ahead!” I dare them, as they scatter to the edge of the sidewalk. “Try and name a better thing!”
The Freedom Stick is one of several devices from the company FreedomPop, which we first covered in these pages a little over a year ago (see “Free Wireless Broadband for the Masses”). The basic idea behind each of these devices is the same: a little puck or case or dongle that acts as a WiFi hotspot for one or more of your devices. And the craziest thing of all? After purchasing the device, the WiFi is free.
At least, up to a point. When I signed up to get my Freedom Stick, I had a few options. All of them seemed wildly favorable, compared to options I’d investigated previously at the AT&T store. To activate five gigs of hotspot tethering with an AT&T iPhone 4, for instance, would cost $50 a month (MiFi hotspot plans can run somewhat cheaper; the ones I investigated were around $30 a month). A 4GB monthly plan from FreedomPop is $29, but I don’t think I could use 4GB if I tried. A 2GB plan is $18, but the plan that got me excited–and the one I chose–is 500 MB per month. That plan is completely free.
Free WiFi–a free monthly service from a tech company. The sensation is strange. I bought the device–a little $39 dongle that arrived in the mail shortly thereafter–and suddenly I had the right to a half-gigabyte of free data usage every month. My last post for Technology Review I filed in the middle of Central Park, with the USB stick plugged into my MacBook Air. It felt glorious.
In theory, I could go through life without paying FreedomPop another penny, enjoying my monthly half-gig in those moments where I desperately need WiFi. In practice, I’ve decided to pay what strikes me as a bargain $3.50 per month to roll over unused WiFi each month. If I find I’m not accruing much, I’ll simply cancel that plan. (FreedomPop doesn’t work everywhere, though a brand new Sprint-friendly device should make it much more widely available.)
Why am I so enthusiastic about this device? I’m trying to put my finger on that, particularly since it seems to fly in the face of a stance I’ve taken on this blog: the stance that we shouldn’t be constantly tethered to the Internet. A principal reason FreedomPop is useful to me, perhaps, is because I recently jilted my iPhone out of a commitment to that very stance. This caused me a lot of grief in Los Angeles recently, where I spent dozens of dollars on superfluous Starbucks lattes just to check email on the chain’s free WiFi.
Another reason I’m using superlatives to describe my Freedom Stick is that it is uniquely suited to a very specific problem I frequently run into: being with my laptop in a WiFi desert, and needing just a few measly MB of data to research and upload a story. Every café is now a Starbucks to me; my new limiting resource is battery power, not broadband.
There’s also the simple, aforementioned fact that FreedomPop’s pricing is extremely fair (and, one hopes, disruptive to big competitors). Why should I pay for all-you-can-eat, when I just want a byte?
But I think the main reason I find FreedomPop so pleasing is that it seems to restore a kind of agency to my decisions about when to be connected. I gave up my iPhone because I felt like it was taking over my life; I found myself checking email when on some level I didn’t want to. FreedomPop restores the power to me, placing it literally in my hand. My MacBook Air is typically an offline device, but when I want to, or need to, I can make a conscious decision to reach into my bag and spend roughly a minute to physically transform my device, to “jack in” to the Internet.
The physicality of the transformation and the minute-long interval are both key. One of the things I love about the (unrelated) program Freedom, which disables your internet connection at your behest, is that you can always get back online; you simply have to make a conscious, multi-step decision to force quit your programs and restart your computer.
Unlike my iPhone, both Freedom and FreedomPop give me access to the Internet without allowing me to access it impulsively. There are steps I have to go through: buttons I have to press, a dongle I have to fetch. Online, offline: these states of being could not be more different, and yet they are toggled today all too easily. FreedomPop slows the process of toggling, and I love the device because it helps maximize my freedom both to be on the internet and to be off of it.