NetZero made a name for itself in the late '90s for giving away free dial-up Internet service in the U.S. and offsetting the cost with targeted advertising. Although the company was able to weather the storm after the dot com bubble went bust -- in fact, it later launched a DSL service and still has about 750,000 dial-up subscribers -- it has largely stayed out of the limelight as customers moved on to faster broadband alternatives.

Well, the company is now hoping lure back some budget-conscious customers with a new offer of free wireless broadband. The new NetZero service runs on Clearwire's WiMAX network and unlike the old dial-up service, the free wireless Internet option is ad-free. Apparently, the company is operating the service at a loss with the hope of upselling customers to paying plans after the first year. Paid plans start at $9.95 per month.

As you would expect with an offer of this nature, however, there are a few catches. For starters, users must purchase either a $50 USB stick or a $100 wireless hotspot to sign up for the free offering and pay $20 shipping and handling for either device. The free accounts are limited to 200MB of data per month -- enough for some email and web surfing, but little else -- and they're only good for 12 months of service.

After the free period is up users can opt for one of NetZero's paid plans at $9.95 per month for 500MB, $19.95 for 1GB, $34.95 for 2GB, or $49.95 for 4GB. There are no contracts to sign, and whenever the monthly traffic allotment is exhausted the service is cut off so users don't get slapped with huge overage charges.

By comparison, AT&T cheapest wireless data plan costs $14.95 per month for 250MB and is only available for tablets with built-in cellular modems, while Virgin Mobile offers 500MB of data for $20 per month. Taking that into account NetZero's offerings aren't a bad deal in the $10-20 range if you won't consume a lot of data. For higher tier plans, however, there are better alternatives on the market.

It should be noted that Clear is only available in a limited number of areas, so make sure to check the coverage map before buying in. Coverage is unlikely to improve significantly in the future since Clearwire has stopped investing in WiMAX and is instead raising money for a new network based on LTE technology.