LOS ANGELES – FreedomPop, which sells low-cost wireless service, came up with its best deal ever in late June: $10 a month for text, talk and data service, and it offered $50 phones to boot.
Consumers snapped up the service, and FreedomPop’s new Unreal Mobile subsidiary sold out of most of the phones. It’s scrambling now to get more inventory beyond the refurbished $249 iPhone 6, $149 Samsung Galaxy S6 and $99 S5 phones, along with the new $50 Alcatel Dawn phones.
The monthly price is eye-popping. Sprint, for example, charges $40 monthly for a plan with a 2 GB data cap, or you can pay $45 monthly with T-Mobile or AT&T with 2 GB of data as well. (Verizon's "unlimited" offer starts at $70 monthly.)
Meanwhile, shoppers want to know – how is the service?
I decided to find out. I brought a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S7 the company loaned to me (original release: 2015) on a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest and had adequate service in coastal Oregon, up and down Washington State and on Whidbey Island. Coverage was a little spottier in the town of Port Townsend, which is at the tip of Washington, about two hours north of Seattle. And I’ve been using the phone back home near Los Angeles, as well.
The plan gets me a signal. It connects to other phones. The phone rings when you get calls. You can send text messages and receive e-mails. You can look up things on the web. You can watch videos on YouTube, albeit in lower resolution, "DVD quality," but they looked fine on a 5.1-inch screen. No complaints here.
For $10 a month, what more do you need?
For many, the answer would be consistent, high-speed service. Unreal Mobile offers you just 1 GB of high-speed data as part of the $10 plan, or 2 GB if you’re willing to spend $15 monthy.
After I ate through the 2 GB of data by letting YouTube roll on and on, service got slowed down to 512 kbps, which is somewhere in-between 2G and 3G, FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols told me.
That’s enough data to do email, text and instant message, but it would make watching video a chore, he notes.
In my own tests, opening web pages were slower at the reduced speed, but not unusable. CNN.com opened in 37 seconds (vs. three on my iPhone X with T-Mobile), Amazon in seven seconds (vs. three) and Sprint 12 seconds, again vs. three seconds. In a nutshell, those waited seconds were the price of throttling, or using the phone at lower speeds once I used up data.
The service is through the Sprint network, which has long been considered to have the weakest reach of the big four wireless carriers. However, the phone should work best in most big cities.
If you buy one of Unreal's three cheap, refurbished phones, the iPhone 6 ($249) Galaxy S6 ($149) or Galaxy S5 ($99), you’ll get an older model with less power and a camera that’s not as advanced as others. Some newer apps may not work with the phones, since Unreal is offering phones that aren't as current. However, you can bring your own phone to Unreal service, as long as it's been on the Sprint or Verizon networks, which uses the CDMA standard. (Unreal also sells the new Alcatel Dawn smartphone for $50.)
Stokols says the service works with "most" Sprint and Verizon phones. Later in the summer, Unreal will begin offering SIM cards to work on phones on the T-Mobile and AT&T GSM networks as well.
Stokols has long contended that despite all the “unlimited” high-speed offers from the big four carriers (which eventually get throttled as well), the average non-millennial just doesn’t use that much data. His view is that the average American, 35 and up, checks email at home using Wi-Fi, goes to work, settles in with corporate Wi-Fi all day, comes home, eats dinner and watches TV — possibly streaming through Wi-Fi.
He says the $15 plan with 2 GB of high-speed data is by far the most popular, with over 60% of his users, but the average data use is 1.3 GB.
FreedomPop has been dogged by brutal reviews online for its customer service, which Stokols has tried to address, he says, by hiring more workers. We called support three times and got through in minutes. “Which is a good sign,” Stokols said. Still, would-be subscribers would need to take the past reviews in consideration before signing up.
He had planned on having Amazon sell his service but had to pull back when he sold out of his first phone shipment. He’s awaiting more phones, from a network of third-party, refurbished phone dealers, and plans to begin with Amazon and other retailers (which also includes Target and Best Buy) later in the summer.
For parents looking to buy their kids' cheap communication tools, $10 a month has got to sound a lot better than $40-$70 monthly. And for those people who say they only use the phone for email, texting and an occasional web page surf, well, here’s the plan for them.
But for those of us who are heavy surfers, want the latest and greatest phone models and lightning-fast speed, you might be happier with your current plan.
Follow USA TODAY's Jefferson Graham on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube (@jeffersongraham) and listen to the daily Talking Tech podcast on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.