There has been a lot of talk about Internet access being a human right. The comparison has been made between Internet access and the telephone - and the government’s responsibility to provide universal service even though the cost to the telcos of running cables out to rural, isolated homes and communities does not justify the effort.
In the meantime there have been a lot of efforts to bridge the digital divide and provide free or low-cost broadband access to folks in large and small towns, and rich and poorer areas of cities.
- Recently the well funded company LightSquared collapsed. LightSquared was hoping to provide a nationwide 4G LTE wireless internet connection via satellite. Eventually they run afoul of spectrum issues because the bandwidth on which they built their technology interfered with GPS devices. LightSquared could have totally disrupted the wireless data market. Instead, it seems to have been a total failure. [NOTE: there are some plans to revive the company under a modified business model]
- Google has joked with the idea of free broadband connected through your sewer system.
- Google seriously implemented free wifi hotspots in partnership with airplane wifi service provider Boingo.
- Chicago recently announced plans to offer free wifi in public places throughout the city. It’s not clear how that project will be funded.
The point of all this is that many people are trying to figure out how to provide a reasonably fast data connection to people for free. As all communication traffic slowly migrates from cellular and landline networks to data networks, this seems like a good market to be in. However, how does someone make money doing it?
Enter mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Karma. Karma is selling a $79 hotspot that you can use for free so long as you open up the network to public access. The more data you share with strangers, the more data you get to use for yourself.
Karma went live last week. For the cost of a $79 3G hotspot, you get 1 GB of data that doesn’t expire. You can buy more bandwidth for $14 a gig. You may never need to pay another penny, though. Every time someone else logs into your hotspot you get an additional 100 MB of data. Guests can use 100 MB free before being asked to register for an account or logoff. If you were a good enough sharer you could rack up enough free data to last a lifetime, or, at least as long as Karma is in business.
Another MVNO, FreedomPop is trying something similar. GigaOM mentions a few others companies trying to find a successful way to market shared bandwidth and airtime to encourage use including Fon and OpenGarden.
Internet bandwidth is something that we all typically have a lot more of than we actually need. Like your car that sits idle in a parking lot all day while you bike to work, your bike that hangs idly in your garage or hallway while you bus to work, your extra bedroom that sits empty while you live comfortably in your master bedroom, your 200+GB of broadband data is going largely unused. The average household that subscribes to a $60/month broadband internet package probably uses less than 15% of their allotted bandwidth. It’s only a matter of time before we find ways to properly allocate that resource in a more efficient manner. Perhaps shifting to a crowdsourced model will help save people money and provide more access to people.