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NetZero Wireless, a subsidiary of United Online, today announced the launch of NetZero 4G Mobile Broadband, an inexpensive WiMax service for laptops, tablets and netbooks. NetZero’s data plans start at zero dollars a month. That would be free. All data plans, including the free plan, requires the purchase of either a $99 NetZero 4G HotSpot or the $49 NetZero 4G Stick.

NetZero is reselling WiMAX service from Clear, according to Engadget. The free service is limited to 200MB of data a month. Basic $9.95/month service is limited to 500 MB/mo. You get 1 GB/month with the $19.95/month service.

If you reach your quota, the service cuts out unless you purchase “top-ups” or upgrade to a different plan. According to the terms of service, after twelve months, you’ll be required to upgrade to a paid plan to keep using the service, and anyone who’s already upgraded won’t be able to go back to the free option.

It’s available in over 80 cities nationwide, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Miami. Customers are not required to sign a contract, and can upgrade their data plan at any time.

Each plan delivers 4G service with download speeds of up to 10Mbps and upload speeds of up to 1.5Mbps. Of course WiMax service is going away in a few years, after Clearwire upgrades to TD-LTE. Still, 200 Mbps (free) or 500Mbps ($10/month) is a pretty good deal. Most commitment-free options are only 3G or cost more, explains Engadget.

For the iPad, AT&T offers a $15/month data plan with a 250 MB/month cap. Verizon’s $20 data plan gets you 1GB/mo. Verizon’s 2GB plan costs $30/month. That same price gets you 3 GB of data on AT&T.

Cellular service on an iPad would be less spotty and more convenient than a WiMAX-enabled mobile hotspot, but telcos don’t offer free or $10/month data plans. Cellular plans would also require a more expensive iPad equipped with a cellular radio. NetZero doesn’t restrict their service to just tablets. The company likely expects most subscribers will upgrade from free to pay service.

Cricket and Clearwire last week announced a five-year wholesale agreement to leverage Clearwire’s forthcoming LTE Advanced network. Leap currently provides LTE services using its 1.7/2.1 GHz spectrum in Tucson, Ariz., with plans to expand the technology to cover 25 million potential customers by the end of this year and across two-thirds of its current CDMA network footprint over the next three years.

This fall more flexible 4G phones are expected to expand LTE support to Sprint’s FD-LTE service in the PCS band (1.9 GHz), T-Mobile’s FD-LTE in the AWS band (1.7/2.1 GHz), and Clear’s TD-LTE in the 2.6 GHz band. Interoperability is probably wishful thinking.

In an era of 1 GB multi-media embedded newspapers and magazines, the cost of data plans will have to come down. Otherwise, Apple, Google and Amazon – not to mention media organizations – will atrophy and die.

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