The telephone calls described in advertisements as being "free" are rarely that. Yes, if you chat with a company on an 0800 number using one of our endangered British public payphones, that counts. But in most other instances, you pay a monthly fee for the privilege of placing your call in the first place, whether it's fixed line rental, a mobile plan or a broadband package. "Free" calls are just perks that come with the subscription. But that's set to change this summer with FreedomPop, a mobile operator launching in the UK on the promise of completely free mobile phone calls. "FreedomPop believes that mobile access is a right and not a privilege," states its press release, making it sound for all the world like a charitable organisation wresting power away from the networks and handing it to a grateful British public.
It's not quite that simple, but there's no doubt that it's a new and disruptive business model. FreedomPop evidently has no network infrastructure, and can only work by piggy-backing on an existing network. Just like other virtual operators such as GiffGaff, it buys access and then grants that to its own customers. But while other virtual operators buy packages of minutes, data and texts and then resell them at a small markup, FreedomPop buys the data (initially from the Three network) and uses it to carry calls and texts, too. Customers receive a FreedomPop SIM and an app, giving free access to a world of mobile communication – albeit within strict limits of 200Mb of data, 200 texts or 200 minutes of calls. That's a pretty measly allowance compared to most mobile phone plans, but for occasional users, younger children, or for a spare or an emergency phone, it represents a saving of at least £60 per year over a cheap SIM-only deal. Granted, you'll need to find a phone to put the SIM into, but with an estimated 90 million unused mobiles lying about in the UK (I've got five of them) that's unlikely to present too much of a problem.
FreedomPop has to make money, of course, and it does so by charging for usage over and above the basic, drawing comparisons with budget airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet. Although you could see that as luring customers in with freebies and then penalising them for overuse, there are other Easter eggs that seem to back up FreedomPop's claim that it's "rewriting the rules". Free international calling to 60 countries is included within the deal, and you'll be able to add a foreign phone number to your SIM for £2 a month, enabling you to talk at local rates with friends in far-flung destinations. It will also be launching Jetsetter, a roaming data SIM, giving cheap data access abroad (initially just Spain and France).
FreedomPop already has a million subscribers in the US, half of them freeloading, half paying for extras. It's unlikely to upturn the British market – after all, it requires the say-so of mobile networks in order to operate, and judging by press reports the company may well end up being swallowed up by a much bigger buyer. But when you combine initiatives such as FreedomPop with the emerging ability of new devices to switch seamlessly between mobile networks and wi-fi to place voice calls, it all helps to whittle away at the cost of mobile communication. Across towns, countries and continents, more and more calls will end up being genuinely free – not just pretend free.Reuse content