Summary:

Austin’s M87 is trying to turn smartphones into extensions of the mobile network, sending mobile connections hopping from device to device before hitting the tower. Qualcomm has taken notice.

M87 concept
photo: M87

A small Austin startup called M87 thinks we would all have a better mobile data experience if we’d just share our phones’ 4G connections with one another. Apparently Qualcomm agrees with them.

M87 has closed a $3 million Series A round of funding, which included new strategic investors Qualcomm Ventures and Chinese data center hosting provide 21Vianet along with M87’s original angel investors.

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 sprang out of the University of Texas’s wireless engineering department after developing a crowdsourced connectivity technology that allows nearby phones to link up via Wi-Fi and use each other 3G and 4G connections to the mobile network. The technology is similar to the crowd mesh-networking technology developed by another emerging networking startup Open Garden, but rather than offer it to consumers, M87 wants to sell it to carriers so they can link their subscribers together.

At first glance, you’d think carriers would be against having their customers share connections, since selling individual data plans is their bread and butter. But M87 has developed a way for customers to share their radios with nearby users without dipping into their own data plans and without compromising their security.

M87's crowdsourced networking technology (source: M87)

M87′s crowdsourced networking technology (source: M87)

I took a detailed look at M87’s technology in my original profile of the company in December, but in short, M87 wants to turn every mobile phone into a node on the mobile network and send every data packet through the most efficient node. Such a setup could dramatically increase a carrier’s overall 4G overall capacity and ensure users get fast connections speeds even when the wander into the “dead zones” of the network.

As for Qualcomm, the company invests in a lot of networking startups, but M87’s work bears some resemblance to peer-to-peer wireless networking the silicon giant is developing in-house. Qualcomm is a big proponent of a new mobile standard called LTE Direct, which uses LTE radios to connect two nearby devices directly rather than use the mobile network as intermediary. If Qualcomm were to combine its own LTE Direct efforts with M87’s crowdsourced connectivity technology it could create extremely dense and constantly morphing LTE networks that penetrate into the furthest recesses of buildings and other hard-to-reach areas.

Source: Qualcomm

Source: Qualcomm

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