For as much as FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols tried to downplay it as just the most practical way for the company to offer the services and tools it believes its customers need as opposed to some grand statement in the mobile market, there’s no getting around what a big deal it is that the free-smartphone-plan company is now making its own tablets and smartphones.
Today, FreedomPop announced its first foray into device making with the FreedomPop Liberty, a 6.7-inch tablet (phablet?) with a 1024 x 600 capacitive display and 1.2 GHz dual-core Cortex A9 processor inside. It also sports 512 GB of RAM, 4GB of flash storage (with a microSD slot), front VGA camera and rear 4 MP camera. There’s a G-sensor on board as well as a micro USB port, and the unit if powered by a 2400 mAh battery.
The total cost? $89.
What’s more, the company is trying to push that price down even further; eventually, FreedomPop wants it to drop below $60, or even $50.
FreedomPop is calling the Liberty a phablet even though it doesn’t have 3G or 4G capabilities, but users will be able to make voice calls and send texts over WiFi with the device. When out of range of a WiFi network, FreedomPop suggests that users keep the device connected using a 500 MB FreedomPop hotspot. The data is free, and the hotspot itself costs $49.
The WiFi-only Liberty is just the beginning, though; in November, FreedomPop will announce the Frenzy, a 10-inch, 4G LTE-equipped tablet for $99, and within a few months there will also be an $89 LTE smartphone in the family, too.
And of course, the FreedomPop service is free, offering up to 200 voice minutes and 500 texts every month; LTE devices get 500 MB of free monthly data, too. Presumably, users can also opt for the $20 per month Unlimited Everything Plan, although none of these devices will support 3G, which could make that plan problematic (more on that in a bit).
Stokols would forgive you if you’re tempted to assume that the Liberty is as cheap as it is inexpensive, but he would also disagree. No one at FreedomPop is under the illusion that the Liberty (and subsequent devices) are anything but low-end, but Stokols was adamant when we spoke that these will not be junk devices.
No, they don’t run the latest Snapdragon SoC. Yes, the displays are relatively low-res. No, the camera isn’t exceptional at just 4 MP. Yes, there’s just 4 GB of storage (although that will bump to 8 GB in due time.) Even so, Stokols said out that these specs are competitive with higher-end devices that are now a couple of generations old, such as the Samsung Galaxy S3. The bottom line is that these are entry-level devices that give a new swathe of users the chance to get in on the smartphones and tablet market.
Up to now, FreedomPop offered refurbished Sprint devices. In fact, the company has been snapping up some 90% of Sprint’s “like-new” supply, which is around 15,000 units a month. FreedomPop can’t keep them on the shelves, though, and so months ago the company began looking into additional device options. FreedomPop never found anything that quite suited its business model that was also certified in the U.S., and it eventually became clear that the most sensible option was simply to make its own smartphones and tablets. The company has manufacturing partners in China and India, although Stokols declined to drop names. It will continue to sell refurbished devices in addition to its own lineup.
One somewhat curious aspect of FreedomPop’s device family is that they’re either WiFi-only or have 4G LTE, but none will have 3G capabilities. This jibes with FreedomPop’s LTE-only service, but it raises an important question: What are users supposed to do when they’re not in range of either a WiFi network or a 4G LTE network?
They’re screwed. Stokols doesn’t disagree with that assessment, but he did note that it’s a temporary problem. “In three years, everything will be 4G-only,” he said, stating that FreedomPop is 18 months or so ahead of the curve. He further pointed out that approximately 70-75% of his customers’ usage is done over WiFi, so that gap between WiFi availability and 4G LTE availability is a relatively minor one that’s getting smaller all the time as Sprint expands its LTE coverage. (Still, it’s one that persists, and we shouldn’t minimize how inconvenient that 3G void can be for many users.)
You can get yourself a Liberty tablet/phablet from FreedomPop now; keep your eyes peeled for the 10-inch LTE Frenzy tablet and LTE smartphone coming soon.
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