They’re Ba-ack!

20 03 2012

One of the more memorable lines from Poltergeist II (1986) is when the toy phone rings, and the Beast, appearing as a ghostly Reverend Kane, alerts little Carol Anne of his return. Insert scary music and sound effects, topped with crying and screaming. The movie kind of goes downhill from there, which is understandable given that about the only thing people remember today are those two cryptic words.

Unfortunately, I found myself thinking the same two words when I read of the return of NetZero, the once-popular 1990s free dial-up service making its return to the internet realm. The only difference this time (and it is arguably a big one), is that NetZero is now offering free mobile wifi service instead of clunky snail’s-pace dial-up.

OK, there are some strings attached. Big ones.

First of all, you have to buy the device ($50 for a USB wifi card, or $100 for a stand-alone wifi hub). You only get 2000MB per month of bandwidth. And…here’s the kicker…it only lasts for a year.

Which is another way of saying that this time around, NetZero is basically teasing wifi newcomers to the table. You can’t do much more than send and receive emails with that kind of data plan. Naturally, NetZero is going to hit users with full frontal assaults to upgrade to pricier options (that can reach $50/month) that allow up to 4GB of bandwidth (or $9.95 for 500MB).

NetZero is actually reselling Sprint/Clearwire wifi in this instance, which means that technical support is now two steps removed from users. Clearly, this offering is designed for those who have not yet jumped on the wifi train. I currently pay $60/month to Sprint for a similar wifi hub that supports 5 devices, and gives me unlimited 4G bandwidth (or up to 2GB in 3G mode). I never have to worry about approaching my limit, and I know who I can call if I ever have trouble.

But NetZero is coming in essentially with a blue light special. And if all you really need to do is check your email, this might just be the trick. Even after the trial period is up, for about $10 a month users can have 500MB (still rather limited) to play with.

All told, this is actually a very clever strategy, because NetZero learned long ago that those most likely to fall for the free model are not likely to be heavy users in the first place. I am sure they no doubt have clever algorithms in place predicting exactly how much bandwidth each person will use. Given that they are bulk-buying unused capacity from Sprint/Clearwire, they are getting a huge deal…and then passing it on as if it were a real bargain for consumers.

Good marketing, as long as you don’t decide to become a YouTube junkie.

As for me, I abide by the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” mantra. When it comes to internet service, I don’t want to be bound by ridiculously low limits, only to suddenly find myself into a bonus round of fees. I’d rather pay up front for a smorgasbord, and then eat what I want.

Which is why when my toy phone rang this morning, I wasn’t the least bit scared of the Reverend Kane as he came down my street. He can walk on the other side.

Dr “I Can Be A Beast” Gerlich



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