NetZero's Free WiFi Offer Raises Eyebrows

Dennis Faas's picture

If you're a long-time Internet user, you may remember NetZero, one of the first free Internet providers. Now the company is making a comeback bid by offering free wireless access. However, there's a catch.

NetZero launched in 1998 offering free dial-up access, but making users view advertising in a display window they could not close. The idea was that advertisers would support the company by paying for ads in that window. (Source:

The system soon caught on and helped bring hundreds of thousands of new users to the web. Eventually, though, a collapse in online advertising rates forced NetZero to start restricting the amount of time its customers could spend online each month.

This restriction, combined with the rising availability and falling price of high-speed broadband services (that didn't tie up a user's phone lines) caused the firm's popularity to fade.

NetZero later re-emerged with former rival Juno Online under the parent company United Online.

NetZero Brand Name Now Revived For Free Wireless Service

NetZero is now re-launching itself as a wireless service that allows free Internet access anywhere within range of its network, which is on the same cellular network as Sprint's popular and widely-available high-speed 4G service.

The service is free, but as before there are some major restrictions. First, customers must buy special equipment from NetZero: either a $50 "mini-antenna" for a laptop or a $100 mobile hotspot that will let them connect any WiFi device.

Second, the free account is limited to 200 megabytes (MB) of data each month, a little less than the cheapest services offered by major cellphone networks.

There aren't any penalties or overage fees, but once a customer hits the limit NetZero blocks all further access for the rest of the month. (Source:

Paid Plans Don't Represent Amazing Value

Finally, NetZero's free service is available to each customer for only one year.

After that period (or if the customer decides they want more data each month), they must switch to a paid plan from NetZero: 500 megabytes per month for $9.95 or 4 gigabytes for $50.

These plans are barely cheaper than the ones available from NetZero's competitors.

For people who download very little data while connected to the web, NetZero's free service may be worthwhile. However, for everyone else, it's probably better to stick to less restrictive service plans from other firms.

If too many people make that choice, it could be disastrous for NetZero. This is because its business plan appears to be to attract attention with the free service and then earn a profit from customers who agree to pay for its premium packages.

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