NYC food trucks use Karma’s social mesh to become Wi-Fi hotspots on wheels

New York City food trucks are adding a new item to their menus: free Wi-Fi. Starting on Thursday, 30 roving restaurants in the Big Apple will be sporting virtual operator Karma’s 4G mobile hotspots, offering anyone in the vicinity 100 MB of free access.

The participating trucks are run by empanadas specialist Nuchas, Andy’s Italian Ices, mobile burger flipper Frites ‘N’ Meats and coffee wagon Mudtruck. Karma is also installing the hotspots — which connect users through Wi-Fi to Clearwire’s(s clwr) WiMAX network — at Mad. Sq. Eats, a seasonal outdoor market in Madison Square Park.

Karma MVNO hotspot 4GOnce interested web surfers log into a hotspot (under the Your Karma SSID) using Facebook, they will receive 100 MB of free data access, which they can use not only at the hosting food truck but also at any other participating food truck or any other Karma hotspot. If you like the hosting food truck’s Facebook(s fb) page, you receive an additional 25 MB.

The fascinating thing about Karma is that unlike other wireless ISPs, it doesn’t just sell you access to your own mobile hotspot. Karma gives you access to everyone else’s hotspots, too. Any Karma customer can link to any Karma hotspot — whether it is on a food truck or in your neighbor’s pocket — allowing you to use your megabytes wherever its ad hoc network of devices are present.

Karma doesn’t want to be another mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) selling devices and bulk megabytes. Instead it hopes to build a social mesh network that divorces access from the device. If Karma can achieve scale, customers will no longer be forced to tether their tablets or PCs to a single modem they have to lug around wherever they go, said Karma CEO and co-founder Robert Gaal. By working with food trucks, Gaal said, Karma can seed its social mesh network in more places, helping it achieve that scale.

Karma staff MVNO“This all started because the Mudtruck was parked around the office from TechStars,” Gaal said in an email. “During our time in the program and after, we kept in touch with them. At one point, we figured that all those people in line for the truck with their eyes glued to their phones might need some Wi-Fi. The first tests we did worked really well, so we approached many more after.”

After using up your initial 100 MB of free data, you can buy an additional gigabyte for $14, and that data never expires. Since Karma is so small today, customers will need to get their own dedicated hotspots if they expect to get a connection in most places. But Karma offers incentives to share your connection with as many people as possible: for everyone who connects to your modem you get 100 MB of free data, and any data those guests consume isn’t subtracted from your data bucket.

Eventually it may be possible to be a Karma customer without ever owning a Karma modem. As more customers buy into the service, the likelihood of finding a Karma signal will increase, especially in areas where internet users converge like airports and coffee shops. Gaal said Karma will also build on the food truck project and began seeding hotspots in other heavily trafficked areas.