Get free Internet access while on the road

Photo courtesy FreedomPop

(MoneyWatch) Need to connect your laptop or Wi-Fi-only tablet to the Internet, but there's no hotspot nearby? Make your own and get online for free.

That's the promise of FreedomPop, a service that seems to offer the impossible: a pocket-sized gadget that converts Sprint 4G and 3G cellular service into a private Wi-Fi hotspot -- for no monthly service fee. After buying the FreedomPop for about $35, you get 500MB of data per month.

Let me get the bad news out of the way up front: Perhaps the biggest limitation I found with FreedomPop is its reliance on the Sprint network. At home, an hour outside of LA, I have no Sprint 4G service, though FreedomPop does fall back on (the much slower) 3G service. That's OK, of course, since I already have Internet service at home; I'm more interested in performance away from the home office. On the road, even service in L.A. is spotty; places I would have expected to have decent service had 3G only or nothing at all. Finding 4G connectivity was akin to serendipitously finding a great prize in my box of Cracker Jacks.

Of course, I recognize that some parts of the U.S. have great Sprint service. I just don't happen to live or work in one. So FreedomPop is definitely one of those "your mileage may vary" kind of products. If you'd benefit from free, on-demand Internet access, check the Sprint coverage map and see how well this will works for you. (The FreedomPop web site checks your service coverage when you start the sign-up process.)

To folks who spend their time solidly in 4G and 3G zones: You will love FreedomPop.

FreedomPop has several options. I tried the Overdrive Pro gadget, which I found to be conveniently small and lightweight. It has a solid battery life of about four hours between charges and is quite easy to use. Just turn it on and wait a minute for it to boot and connect. Enter the Wi-Fi password that's displayed on the LCD screen, and you're in business.

That's all there is to it. I have had no trouble connecting the FreedomPop to my laptop, iPad and even a pair of Google Glass, which I had an opportunity to try out recently. It just plain works.

After you use the initial 500MB in a given month, you can draw additional data by signing up for a premium plan (like 2GB for $20 a month), or get additional data through promotions (like encouraging friends and family to sign up as well). If you do sign up for a premium data plan, there's no contract and you can cancel at any time. That way you don't get locked into a year-long agreement if all you need is a heavy dose of data for a single business trip.

FreedomPop is such a smart mobile Internet that it's almost a no-brainer: For an initial investment of $35, you get heaps of free Internet access wherever Sprint has coverage. Alas, "wherever Sprint has coverage" is the Achilles' heel of this plan. But if you live, work or travel within Sprint's footprint, you simply can't go wrong.