Ever looked at your tablet and thought, y’know, if only this thing could give me all of the same calling features I get on my smartphone, I really wouldn’t need my smartphone at all?
No? OK, well maybe ditching your smartphone for a mobile-capable tablet isn’t on everyone’s wishlist but the point is this: Even if you did want to do that, you couldn’t — at least not completely. Until today that is. Today, FreedomPop, a company that has been providing free voice and data plans on smartphones since 2012 on Sprint and Clearwire’s networks, has started offering these same “freemium” plans on mobile-enabled tablet devices too.
Getting voice services onto mobile tablets is tricky. The problem is that even though your mobile tablet has a SIM card just like a smartphone, that SIM card only provisions your tablet with mobile data. There is simply no phone number associated with that SIM card at all. No phone number means no voice calls and no text or SMS messages.
“Hey wait just a minute,” I hear you say. “Aren’t you forgetting that services like Skype and Google Voice can give you the ability to make and receive phone calls over a data connection?” True, true. But as good and handy as these services are, they each come with their own set of limitations that prevent them from being true replacements for a carrier-based telephony service.
FreedomPop overcomes this barrier with their own dedicated VoIP network combined with native apps for both iOS and Android.
VentureBeat contacted FreedomPop CEO, Stephen Stokols, by phone to find out how this works. “Not only are you getting half a gig of free data but we’re expanding the capability of the tablet to include voice functionality,” Stokols says, “You can use your tablet as a phone.”
Once you sign up for FreedomPop’s service, you can pick a phone number for your device. Your can choose numbers from any city in the U.S. – not just the one you happen to live in. If you have more than one device with FreedomPop e.g. a tablet and a smartphone, both devices can respond to the same number if you choose (similar to how you can receive FaceTime calls or iMessages on various Apple devices that use the same AppleID).
All of the telephony features work even if the FreedomPop dialer app isn’t open on your device. “It runs in the background,” says Stokols. “so if the app is closed and a phone call comes in, the device will ring, you pick it up and it will open the app. Same for a text message — it will give you an alert to say, ‘Hey you’ve got a text message’ — the same way native texting or the native phone dialer app would work.”
Given that most of us are so used to paying the equivalent of a small mortgage just to feed our insatiable need for mobile connectivity, FreedomPop’s offer of a completely free, no-strings-attached mobile plan with 500 MBs of LTE data, 200 voice minutes and 500 texts seems way to good to be true.
How the heck can this be a) as good a deal as it sounds, and b) not a complete money-losing operation for Stokols and FreedomPop?
“Half of our users — literally 51 percent — don’t pay us a penny,” Stokols admits, “That’s what we want. But 49 percent pay us.”
Stokols choice of where to draw the line on the free voice, data and text package is based on his analysis of user behavior. According to his findings, 500 MBs of LTE data, 200 voice minutes and 500 texts will satisfy the needs of exactly half of Americans. “The rest of us will want to upgrade and our rates are competitive. Twenty bucks for two gigs and no contract. So the other half [of subscribers] are paying us for upgrades or for digital services,” says Stokols, “We get margins that are 50 percent.”
So they do make money. But how is he able to convince a mobile carrier to jump on board and accept that half of FreedomPop’s subscribers won’t generate a dime?
“In almost any market there is always a number two and three,” Stokols points out. “Number two and three is always willing to take a little more risk to become number one. Those guys are always a little more receptive [to FreedomPop]. In the case of Sprint, looking to gain traction against AT&T and Verizon, partnering with someone with different models in place but who can drive real scale to their network, they’re willing to take that chance.”
If you own a mobile-enabled tablet, you can jump on the FreedomPop train right away. But Stokols has you covered even if you don’t. FreedomPop is now selling “like new” refurbished iPad mini Wifi+3G models for $319, no contract. They also sell the Samsung Tab 3 for $199.
When asked about the quality of these refurb units, given that FreedomPop only offers a 90-day warranty on them versus Apple’s one-year warranty on refurb iPads, Stokols was confident customers would be happy. “Nobody is on the refurb scale like we are and that puts us in a power position. We’re able to get low-cost devices in volume. […] We have the same refurbisher as Apple. Brightpoint does the refurbishing for them and us,” he says.
Of course, Stokols is more than happy to sell you an additional warranty on your refurb device if you’re risk-averse, with plans that cost about $4 a month.