Summary:

Internet access is limited by service providers, who act as gatekeepers to the treasures of connectivity. But could crowdsourcing connectivity be the answer to the problem for mobile users? That’s the question startup Open Garden is looking to answer.

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Internet access is limited by service providers who act as gatekeepers to the treasures of connectivity. But could crowdsourcing connectivity be the solution to the problem for mobile users? That’s the question startup Open Garden is looking to answer.

The San Francisco company, which debuted at TechCrunch Disrupt this week, is releasing a set of apps for Mac, PC and Android that allow devices to share connectivity through a mesh network. The idea is that mobile devices could connect together via Wi-Fi and rely on the strongest Internet connection between  them to connect at the fastest speed. The Android app launched Monday and now the entire service is live for users who want to download apps for their Mac and PC.

Users who have the Open Garden app can connect to a local mesh network, which automatically routes traffic through the strongest link to the Internet. That would allow multiple devices to get connectivity in one location, even if they’re not paying for local hotspot access or mobile broadband through a cellular carrier. That is going to raise some eyebrows with operators and Wi-Fi providers, who are not keen to see their commodity shared among users. But it means that mobile users may have a better shot at getting online at various locations, provided enough users are willing to share their 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi connections.

There have been other past solutions for sharing connections, but they often required users to root their mobile device, said Micha Benoliel, who previously worked at Skype, negotiating the deals with European operators. Open Garden is a free and easy way for people to get online without needing to have any technical know-how, he said.

“This doesn’t require you to be a geek to make this work,” Benoliel.

The first version is completely open and relies on users freely sharing their connections. That could be a problem for people who are worried about having strangers use their broadband. But Open Garden is working on a new version available soon that will allow users to control how much data they allow other users to use. And it will enable them to limit connectivity to friends or friends of friends or share with everyone if they choose.

But the hope is that people will share freely. Toward that end, Open Garden is working toward providing generous broadband sharers with credits that they can use when they want to connect elsewhere. Or they can use it to avoid roaming charges or get faster access.

Co-founder Micha Benoliel

Benoliel said Open Garden has made a lot of progress in making connectivity easy and also with auto-matching the optimal path to ensure fast connections for all. He said the company plans to monetize by offering VPN access and faster downloads in the future. An iOS app is in the works and they hope it will be ready by the end of the year.

Open Garden brings some smarts to bear on the issue of mobile connectivity. Besides Benoliel, Open Garden was founded by Stanislav Shalunov, who worked at Internet2 before heading to BitTorrent, where he designed the congestion control protocol. Another founder Greg Hazel was lead developer of the μTorrent BitTorrent client.

It will be interesting to see if carriers or hotspot providers try to thwart Open Garden, although Benoliel said the operators shouldn’t be able to interfere. And I’m curious to see how willing users are to share their connectivity out of the goodness of their hearts. There’s a lot that still needs to shake out but for now, it’s an intriguing idea about how a community can overcome the problem of mobile connectivity.

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