Austin startup M87 wants to turn your phone into a shared node on the 4G network

Big carriers like Comcast(s cmsca), SoftBank and BT(s bt) may have gotten wise to the concept of shared home Wi-Fi to build far-reaching networks for their customers. But when it comes to the shared mobile broadband, the movement is more of a grassroots effort with startups and organizations like Open Garden, Karma and the Open Technology Institute pioneering new technologies and business models for letting people crowdsource their cellular connections.

So far mobile carriers haven’t been hot on the idea of shared mobile connections, and for the longest time they blocked phones from tethering with other devices. But a new startup called M87 is trying to convince carriers that they can benefit from a shared bandwidth model. It’s developing technologies that would allow all of the phones in a carrier’s network to link up with another and crowdsource their connections.

M87 founders (from left): VP Marketing Matt Hovis, CEO David Hampton, Chief Research Officer Vidur Bhargava and CTO Peter Feldman.

M87 founders (from left): VP Marketing Matt Hovis, CEO David Hampton, Chief Research Officer Vidur Bhargava and CTO Peter Feldman.

M87 sprouted from the University of Texas at Austin’s wireless engineering department, which developed a technology that allows smartphones to dynamically organize themselves into mesh networks using their Wi-Fi. Those clusters of phones collaboratively identity which device or devices have the strongest links to the 3G or LTE network and then route all of their mobile data traffic through those connections.

Basically it boils down to this: if your phone has a spotty connection, it would borrow a neighboring phone’s radio, using it to hop onto the mobile network, said Peter Feldman, M87 CTO and company co-founder. To look at it another way, every phone in a network is no longer merely an end point. It becomes a node through which other end points communicate.

These kind of distributed networks certainly aren’t alien to communications networks, but they’ve never been adopted in mobile. Feldman said. “If you had to do it all over again, why would you build a network that requires every device to connect to the tower on its own?” Feldman said.

 Sharing connections creates a better network

The most obvious advantage of such a crowdsourced network is greater speeds and more reliable connections for devices sitting on the its fuzzy edges. Phones in dead zones with little or no signal – say far in the interior of a building – could reach out with Wi-Fi to find a device with a strong LTE connection. Customers sharing their connections wouldn’t have any data docked from their data buckets – they’re sharing their radios not their service plans — and that sharing only occurs at the physical layer, so someone using your radio wouldn’t have access to your data.

The M87 network

But the other advantage is that crowdsourced connectivity could increase the overall capacity of mobile network dramatically. To understand this it helps to understand the way mobile networks work.

Cellular networks are shared networks with capacity divided between all of the devices occupying a cell. But that overall capacity also fluctuates depending on how close or far away those devices are from the tower. If most people are at the center, signals are stronger and everyone shares a much bigger capacity pie. If most people are on the fringes, signals are weak, and everyone is forced to split a much smaller pie – even those few who happen to be close to tower.

By radio hopping, M87 is moving more connections to the cell’s center. In dense areas where there are lots of possible links to choose from, that technology could boost a cell’s overall capacity from 30 to 50 percent, M87 claimed.

Building a self-optimizing network

Another startup we’ve tracked closely Open Garden has also developed similar crowdsourced connectivity technology, but its focus is on the consumer. While Open Garden encourages the public to share their cellular and Wi-Fi connections in order to ensure everyone gets the most efficient – and often the cheapest – link to the internet, M87 is targeted its technology solely at carriers. In that sense, M87 has created more of a self-optimizing network (SON), but instead of optimizing the network itself, it’s optimizing the connections with it.

Crowd density dense network feature

M87 completed its code last June, and it began testing it in Vodafone’s Xone labs in July. According to the company, the technology is currently in trials with a nationwide U.S. carrier. The company received its initial funding from the University of Texas Horizon fund and angel investors, though it isn’t revealing the amount.

The small startup will be an interesting one to watch since it’s playing in a space that is of big interest to the wireless industry. While carriers are gathering up new spectrum and deploying faster 4G systems, many of the big improvements in mobile broadband capacity will come from making better use of the spectrum and networks they already have.

Density image courtesy of Shutterstock user higyou