The ‘Secret’ Unlimited Data Hotspot You Can Write Off on Your Taxes

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Photo: Netgear

Travel a lot? Find yourself often scuttling from open Wi-Fi point to open Wi-Fi point? Want to dramatically reduce how much you spend on cell-phone data? Thanks to Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing, I learned about a portable Wi-Fi hotspot service that provides unlimited and unthrottled data from Sprint’s LTE network. The cost? Five hundred dollars for the first year, $400 for every year after that. And you’re getting the service from a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Calyx Institute, which means you can also write off the cost of the service for your taxes.

The Calyx Institute didn’t set out to piggyback off Sprint’s LTE network and provide unlimited data for a very, very cheap price. Their main focus is internet privacy, helping people use things like VPNs and the Tor browser to keep their online activities secure from prying eyes, or fighting against government intrusion (its founder was the first person to ever get a Patriot Act warrant unsealed).

The story of how Calyx is able to provide these hotspots is good example of how complex federal management of the wireless spectrum can be. In 2013, Sprint acquired Clearwire, gulping up the wireless spectrum Clearwire owned as Sprint upgraded its high-speed data connections to cell-phone users. But the spectrum that Clearwire owned had come with a caveat — it was originally meant to be used for educational purposes, and therefore any owner had to allow access its networks to any nonprofit at a very low cost.

Since Calyx is a nonprofit, they now can use Sprint’s extensive upgrades to your advantage. In exchange for $500, you’ll get a portable Netgear Fuse Wi-Fi hotspot and SIM card with unlimited access to Sprint’s Spark LTE network.

The uses for this are plenty. Stuck at La Guardia with a flight delay? You no longer have to try to use your 30 minutes of free internet as carefully as possible. If you have the type of job (like mine) that mainly requires you to have a laptop and a good connection to the internet, a mobile hotspot like this means you can work from pretty much anywhere. Ever been stymied by Amtrak’s awful Wi-Fi connection? That’s because you’re sharing essentially one hotspot with every other passenger on the train. A mobile hotspot usually can take care of it, until you hit the boonies where even your phone won’t get reception.

Which, speaking of your phone, you can also use this to dramatically lower your data fees (or how much data you buy each month on your cell-phone plan). Keep your phone’s Wi-Fi on and the Calyx hotspot on, and you can download as many gigabytes of data as you want from anywhere you can get a Sprint signal without worrying about blasting through your data plan for the entire month.

Some caveats apply, of course. The Netgear Fuse gets about ten hours of battery life, so if you’re going to be away from an electrical outlet for an extended period, you may want to bring a portable battery or two (the Fuse recharges using a MicroUSB port). It’s only going to work where Sprint provides coverage, and while Sprint has recently made some huge leaps in expanding where it provides service, you can still find some dead zones, especially in rural areas. And while the Netgear Fuse can be carried in your pocket, it’s about the size of two smartphones stacked on top of each other. Add in your actual smartphone, and your pockets may be close to busting open.

Those caveats aside, this is a crazy-good deal, especially for anyone who travels regularly or just needs to use the internet a lot while away from their home or work internet connections. Which is why I just became a supporter of the Calyx Institute. My hotspot (and a free T-shirt!) should be arriving shortly, and my cell-phone bill and reliance on finding the nearest Starbucks to grab something off my laptop should be dropping by quite a bit as well.