FreedomPop’s freemium 4G data service goes live

FreedomPop has officially launched its long-awaited beta service, giving all comers a free 500 MB of 4G data each month. The mobile virtual network operator, which users Clearwire’s(s clwr) WiMAX network, will offer an array of prepaid plans for customers who want more data, but, as promised, it is supplying the means for customers to “earn” more megabytes through its unique social media strategy.

Customers can bring their total monthly data allotments to 1 GB via two means: by adding other FreedomPop subscribers to the carrier’s internal social network of users and through special promotional offers such as filling out an online survey or watching a video ad. The social element, however, isn’t a mere referral service in which you get a one-time bonus for bringing a new customer to the network. You keep receiving the 10-MB per-person bonus as long as your contacts remain active subscribers to the network (and they remain your friends).

Right now there is a limit to how much freebie data a customer can earn, capped at 500 GB. But according to FreedomPop COO Steven Sesar, FreedomPop eventually plans to ease that restriction. Sesar said FreedomPop will not only allow customers to rack up data bonuses from more friends, but it will overlay onto its social platform more value-added services, the of use of which will also accrue extra megabytes. One of the ideas FreedomPop has in the works is its own VoIP service. Eventually customers will be able to trade data like currency, allocating unused megabytes to friends.

We’ve already detailed many of the aspects of FreedomPop’s unique freemium business model and its wholesale relationships with Clearwire and Sprint(s s). However more specifics on its plans and pricing emerged for this week’s launch:

  • FreedomPop is offering customers two modems: a mobile hotspot and USB dongle. Both devices are technically free though customers have to put down a $49-$89 deposit, but it’s fully refundable. The company will begin selling sleeve modems that fit over the iPod Touch and iPhone 4 and 4S(s aapl) in coming weeks.
  • Though FreedomPop isn’t limiting what you consume with your free data allotment, it is putting restrictions on how fast you consume it. Though the specific details aren’t spelled out on its website, it appears non-paying customers won’t have access to the WIMAX network’s full mobile broadband speeds. FreedomPop is selling a “Speed Plus” service for $3 a month, which doesn’t throttle speeds and prioritizes packets over those of non-paying customers.
  • Apart from the Speed Plus plan, FreedomPop is selling two prepaid data plans both of which undercut the prices charged by the major operators. The first comes with 2 GB of data for $18 a month, while the second has 4 GB for $29 a month. Customers on those plans pay 1 cent for each megabyte of overage, while on the free and $3 plans customers pay 2 cents for each additional megabyte.
  • The beta is open to all comers, but FreedomPop has an upper limit to the number of customers it will accept. Sesar wouldn’t identify the specific number, saying only it was restricted to the number of devices the MVNO has in inventory.
  • Another reason for limiting subscribers in the beta is that FreedomPop can’t yet offer nationwide service. Since it’s solely using Clearwire’s WiMAX at launch, it’s limited to that operator’s 4G footprint, which covers roughly one-third of the US population.
  • Next year, FreedomPop will switch wholesale partners, trading Clearwire’s WiMAX for Sprint’s new LTE network. Sprint’s(s s) 4G service won’t be complete at that point either, but FreedomPop will also tap into Sprint’s 3G CDMA network giving it near nationwide coverage.

Most interestingly, FreedomPop isn’t restricting customers to a single device. Seras said that he expects families and even some individual subscribers to sign up for two or more devices, and each device will get access to its own separate free 500 MB allotment.

The potential for abuse, though, is obvious. A customers could order multiple devices and spread his or her monthly usage among them. That customer could even rack up more free data on each device by making each device “friend” the others on FreedomPop’s social network. Sesar, however, said FreedomPop will restrict that kind of behavior and will shut off customers that have too many devices linked to a single account or credit card.

Sign image courtesy of Flickr user frankh