Mobile broadband provider FreedomPop has officially become a full-fledged mobile operator. On Tuesday it started selling its first smartphone, the HTC Evo Design, and began offering its first voice and messaging communications services following its usual freemium model: the first 200 minutes, 500 texts and 500 MBs of data each month are free – anything more you pay for.
Though a mobile virtual network operator FreedomPop isn’t following the usual MVNO model of reselling another network’s traditional voice and messaging service. It’s buying bulk 3G and 4G data from Sprint and offering its own VoIP-based communications services over the top. TextNow beat FreedomPop to market with a smartphone and VoIP service in August, but the two MVNOs are in rare company. They’re the first all-IP mobile carriers in the U.S.
FreedomPop plans to offer multiple Android smartphones, but started out with the $99 WiMAX-powered refurbished EVO. Though FreedomPop uses Sprint’s LTE networks for its mobile broadband service, Sprint’s WiMAX footprint is still bigger and finding cheap WiMAX handsets is easier, CEO and co-founder Stephen Stokols said.
“In a lot of places Sprint has both networks, WiMAX is stronger, like LA and NYC,” Stokols said. “We also wanted to launch a $99 phone. That’s hard to do on LTE.”
The phones fall back on Sprint’s 3G CDMA networks, so they’ll work across the country, though the performance of VoIP on 3G might be a bit iffy. Stokols said that FreedomPop spent a lot of time optimizing its VoIP codecs to work on narrowband connections. Though the WiMAX network will produce better call quality, the service is designed to work across the 3G network, Stokols said.
Otherwise it will look just like a regular mobile voice and messaging service. Each customer will get a phone number, which can be used to call or text any other number. The Android’s regular phone dialer has merely been remapped onto FreedomPop’s communications app, Stokols said.
Keeping with its freemium business model, FreedomPop will give its baseline service away for free. Anyone who wants to go over 200 minutes or 500 texts can pay for the extra units each month or sign up for its premium $11 unlimited talk and text plan. On the data side, FreedomPop’s 100,000 customers are closely split between paying customers and those who only consume its 500 MB of free data each month.
As with most of its new services, FreedomPop is launching the smartphone program in beta, allowing it to gradually roll it out to its customers. FreedomPop has stockpiled 30,000 Android WiMAX phones and has its first LTE phones on the way, so if the beta proves successful, Stokols said, it can ramp it up quickly.