Mobile ISP Karma plans a move into home broadband

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Credit: Steven van Wel

Virtual broadband operator Karma announced this week that it will soon be making the leap from WiMAX to LTE with a new mobile hotspot, but that isn’t the full of extent of the NYC startup’s wireless broadband plans.

Karma no longer wants to be merely a mobile internet provider; it wants to be the primary internet connection for its consumer customers, and that means it will have to make the leap from being a mobile ISP to a residential ISP, according to CEO and co-founder Steven van Wel.

“We want to focus on being your only source of internet connectivity,” van Wel said in a recent interview.

Van Wel didn’t go into specifics since the product is still in the planning stages. If Karma keeps with its mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) roots, though, it will most likely offer a wireless home router that taps into its network partner Sprint’s LTE signals. That would allow it to offer a more powerful connection at a cheaper cost per gigabyte, which van Wel acknowledged would be key to making Karma a replacement for a traditional ISP.

Karma's LTE hotspot is pocket-sized and easily portable, but Karma may well have a more powerful router planned for your home (source: Karma)

Karma’s LTE hotspot is pocket-sized and easily portable, but Karma may well have a more powerful router planned for your home (source: Karma)

There’s already precedent among Karma’s fellow Sprint MVNOs. FreedomPop offers a residential wireless internet service giving 1 GB of data away for free each month and offering paid plans that include up to 10 GBs per month. 10 GBs is a pretty paltry sum if you’re streaming video to your TV and networking multiple computers, but FreedomPop isn’t going after the heavy broadband user. Instead, it’s targeting the budget-conscious user who needs a connection to surf at home.

That’s likely the same way Karma will approach the home broadband market. Right now most of Karma’s 100,000 customers are using its service as a kind of internet backup when on the go, van Wel said. When open Wi-Fi isn’t available they pull out their hotspot and continue working and playing online. The data you buy on Karma’s network never expires – a gigabyte costs $14, and after you use it up you buy another for $14 – so it’s perfectly suited to that kind of backup use case.

But van Wel wants Karma to be thought of as more than just a backup. In an email exchange, he wrote:

We feel that wifi is something personal. Something we are all hungry for 24/7. To solve that Karma aims to become part of your daily ritual. Like your keys, wallet and phone. With wireless speeds getting faster and faster – and data should be cheaper – we see a future where wireless will replace fixed. Just like your mobile phone replaced the landline connection over a decade ago. It’s (almost) time to get rid of multiple subscriptions to get connected.

By placing more emphasis on personal broadband, though, Karma is placing less emphasis on the community broadband concept it originally used to launch its service. Karma doesn’t just sell bulk data that you can only use on your own hotspot. It has divorced the connection from the mobile plan, meaning you can connect to any Karma’s customers router. So if you’re out and about without your hotspot, you can ride over someone else’s Karma connection while consuming your megabytes rather than your host’s.

Micha Benoliel Open Garden Sascha Meinrath New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute Steven van Wel Karma Mobilize 2013

Steven van Wel (far left) on an open broadband panel at GigaOM Mobilize 2013 (c) 2013 Pinar Ozger pinar@pinarozger.com

Van Wel said Karma is still a big backer of open Wi-Fi and the broadband commons movement, and it will continue to let customers connect to each other’s hotspots. Shared connections are big source of new customers for Karma as it gives out 500MBs gratis to any user the first time they to hotspot. But if Karma is going to abandon the perception of a being a supplemental service, van Wel said, then it will have to put more devices in customers hands and encourage them to carry those devices wherever they go.

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