Over the last few years, as cell-phone companies have phased out their unlimited offerings and replaced them with plans based on monthly allowances of data, we users have read the message loud and clear: Mobile bandwidth is a scarce, precious thing, and its usage is something we need to keep an eye on. Nowhere is that attitude more evident than when you’re talking about mobile hotspots—the hockey puck-sized devices that let our gadgets access the Internet on the go. We keep the things locked up and hoarded like ammo during the zombie apocalypse.
Karma, a carrier-agnostic, pay-as-you-go hotspot, was born out of the idea that consumers might be ready for a mobile Internet solution that wasn’t tied to the byzantine payment plans of their cellphone company. But even more interesting is the system the company has established to address the problem outlined above, that when it comes to getting online at the cafe, or the park, or the airport, it’s pretty much every user for his or herself. Instead of keeping it for yourself, Karma wants you to share your hotspot with strangers wherever you happen to be using it. And it will top you off with a little free data for your trouble.
The company’s model for "social bandwidth," as they call it, is fairly straightforward. A Karma hotspot costs $80, and every gigabyte of data costs $14. But once you’re out and about, every time you share your connection with someone else, you’re rewarded with 100 megabytes of free bandwidth. In the process, that guest has to create their own Karma account, and they, too, get 100 MB of complimentary bandwidth, which they draw from in the course of that session. So sharing your Karma hotspot only means sharing your connection to the Internet, not the data you’ve already paid for up front. Being friendly isn’t a suck on your bandwidth, it’s a boon to it.
The system is ingenious on a few levels. For one, it incentivizes users to become something like ambassadors for the brand, spreading the word about Karma in the course of being good tech Samaritans. "That’s exactly how I think it should work," says Robert Gaal, one of the company’s founders. "If you’re willing to promote a service, there should be something coming back to you." He points out that this isn’t exactly a novel idea, and that other services, like Dropbox, and for a time, Gmail, similarly rewarded users for getting friends to sign up.
But in a slightly more idealistic sense, the small feature could also have a big impact on how people interact in real, social settings. Instead of going to a coffee shop, opening your laptop, and being greeted with a dozen locked access points, Karma is a step toward a future in which all those hotspots are open for your business—and in which all the people hosting them are potentially open for a conversation. It’s a model that not only lets us get out of the silos we’re in as data users but also the ones we’re in simply as people sitting in rooms full of other people we don’t know.
Gaal says the Karma team is still figuring out how, exactly, this type of interaction should work. While taking pains to maintain user privacy, he envisions tools that would let hotspot hosts or guests message each other, if they so chose. And while real-life relationships might be a secondary concern, the product is still built on the notion that technology can bring people together in real, useful ways.
This type of incentivized sharing, Gaal points out, is taking off in other areas, too. He mentions how AirBnb has challenged the idea that we can’t do anything with our homes when we go on vacation except to make sure all the doors are locked. "Our Wi-Fi kind of works in the same way," he says. "It used to be something you’d lock up, but why not open it? It’s not a big concern to you at all. And in return, you get rewarded."
And free bandwidth isn’t the only payoff generous users stand to reap. Since the service went live in December, Gaal has already heard about one user whose coffee shop connection sharing paid off with a different reward: a date.