Freemium Wireless Startup FreedomPop Embraces Sprint’s LTE Network With New Hardware

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If there was ever a reason not to use wireless data startup FreedomPop’s freemium mobile internet service, it’s because you were stuck cruising on Clearwire’s pokey WiMAX signals. Not everyone is going to fret over the results of a speed test when they’re able to get online and get things done for very little money, but reliance on a mostly abandoned network technology can only take the company so far.

Well, that’s finally about to change. After much crowing, FreedomPop has just announced that it’s finally embracing Sprint’s LTE network and will be releasing its first LTE-capable mobile hotspot shortly.

This won’t come as shock to anyone following FreedomPop’s odyssey — the company first announced its LTE intentions over a year ago, but said at the time it would wait until Sprint’s tiny LTE footprint grew a bit before taking the plunge. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that Softbank’s takeover of Sprint left the once-ailing wireless carrier with an additional $22 billion to use and distribute to its shareholders.

It’s also no surprise to see a hotspot getting pushed out the door first. As far as FreedomPop is concerned, dedicated hardware always seems to come ahead of more interesting fare like smartphones. FreedomPop is pouring plenty of time and resources into getting its newfangled phone service ready for launch later this year — its earmarked a decent chunk of its recent $5 million funding round just for that, and marrying that wireless service with LTE is now one of the company’s priorities.

All in all, this is a big win for everyone involved: customers get access to faster data speeds for no additional cost, and FreedomPop gets the network clout to better compete with some of the wireless carriers it’s trying to take on. Of course, this expansion could come with its share of headaches.

FreedomPop has confirmed that there’s plenty of LTE hardware (including smartphones) in the pipeline, but the shift to a more robust network may prove problematic for early adopters who bought into the early FreedomPop vision and its WiMax-only limitations. Way back when the company announced its tie-up with Sprint last year, CMO Tony Miller said that customers would be able to swap their existing devices for more recent models “at no additional charge and at any point”. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more though, as FreedomPop confirmed to Forbes’ Tomio Geron that users who want to switch their old hotspots for new ones will need to pay the difference in price tag. The process of actually swapping that hardware is one that isn’t quite final yet thanks to some persistent inventory issues, but the company hopes to have it all ironed out over the coming months.