Karma brings its community broadband experiment to LTE

For that least year Karma has been growing its shared 4G service on Sprint’s(s s) WiMAX network, inviting people to connect to its network over Wi-Fi through other customers’ 4G hotspots. Next year, it plans to expand its reach to more cities – and perhaps make its customers’ connections a lot speedier – by linking to Sprint’s new LTE network.

Karma, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), has struck a wholesale deal with Sprint to start selling a 4G hotspot that taps its growing LTE network, according to CEO and co-founder Steven van Wel. The details of the device haven’t been worked out, van Wel said, but Karma is hoping it will connect to Sprint’s new Spark network, an amalgamation of Sprint’s three LTE systems that can support speeds over 50 Mbps.

Micha Benoliel Open Garden Sascha Meinrath New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute Steven van Wel Karma Mobilize 2013

(L to R:) Steven van Wel, CEO, Karma; Sascha Meinrath, VP and Director, New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute; Micha Benoliel, Co-Founder and CEO, Open Garden; Kevin Fitchard, GigaOM Mobilize 2013 (c) 2013 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

Karma is trying to divorce the data plan from the device that connects to the network. As CEO and co-founder Steven van Wel said at Gigaom’s Mobilize conference, if you’re surrounded by Karma hotspots, you should be able to connect to any of them, not just your own. But while you may be sharing a stranger’s connection, you’re not sharing his data – everyone’s usage is deducted from their own accounts.

We’re not surrounded by Karma hotspots yet but the TechStars NYC graduate has managed to attract 50,000 paying customers to its network. Karma offers 100 MB for free when customers first connect, and it rewards hotspot owners 100 MB  whenever they share their connections with a new customer (it’s given away 10,000 GBs so far). It sells additional data for $17 a gigabyte — or $99 for 10 GBs — but that data never expires. It also sells a WiMAX hotspot online, but only 10,000 customers have actually purchased it. The rest are linking to Karma’s network without any hardware, piggybacking off other people’s Wi-Fi routers, van Wel said.

Karma is basically laying the groundwork for a shared bandwidth community (a concept we’ve explored extensively at Gigaom). Right now it doesn’t have so much a community as it does a collection of shared bandwidth tribes: friends and co-workers who spend a lot of time with another and therefore have easy access to each other’s hotspots. As Karma grows, though, the chance of encountering a Karma connection in the wild will increase, allowing it to build that community across major cities and eventually across the country, van Wel said.

Sprint’s LTE network will definitely help, van Wel said. Sprint’s WiMAX network currently only covers about a third of the country’s population, and by the time Karma starts selling its LTE hotspot this spring, Sprint should have much of its nationwide LTE rollout complete. Van Wel said Karma will continue selling its WiMAX device in the interim and will support those devices even after LTE goes live. For hotspot owners that want to upgrade to the network, it will offer discounted devices.