It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned the Karma Go wireless hotspot (other than to Uber drivers whenever I take a private taxi ride), but Karma hasn’t been standing still. The latest news about the embattled wireless 4G hotspot company is that it’s expanded its range of service offerings to provide private hotspot access—for a price.
That takes a little explanation. If you haven’t been following along, Karma started out with the business model of providing quasi-public hotspot service. The original Karma plan involved paying for a specific amount of bandwidth (1 GB, 5 GB, 10 GB, etc.), using that until it was used up, and then buying more. After experimenting with a monthly-fee “unlimited” plan but discovering that people would actually use unlimited amounts of bandwidth if it was offered, Karma settled on a monthly-fee plan with a set bandwidth allotment while keeping the traditional pay-as-you-go model available, too. (And even then, it had to cut that plan back further, too—not exactly a way to endear yourself to your customers.)
But no matter which bandwidth model you subscribed to, the way it’s worked so far is that everyone who has a Karma Go personal 4G router is broadcasting an “open” signal that anyone with a WiFi device can connect to, via a “captive portal” where they have to log in through their computer or device’s web browser. Those who don’t have Karma accounts yet get 100 megabytes of free bandwidth for creating one (but they have to pay for additional bandwidth to go on using beyond that). Those who do have accounts can log in and use their own bandwidth. Either way, it doesn’t cost the owner of the hotspot anything, except a slightly slower connection for his own devices—and each new customer who creates an account also adds 100 megabytes to the router owner’s bandwidth allotment. (Or $1 of credit, if the router owner subscribes to the monthly-fee plan.) Unlike unencrypted routers of old, these public connections are fully isolated from each other, so one user can’t snoop on the activities of another.
However, now Karma is changing things up by offering a private hotspot mode, in which the router switches over to acting like a “traditional” personal hotspot. The router gets a fully customizable userID and password, and drops the captive portal. (This is beneficial for people who use devices like Blu-ray players, printers, Apple TVs, and so forth that simply can’t deal with a web-based login.) Hence, owners of the routers can be sure that only they get the benefit of that sweet, sweet wireless bandwidth—and they can also share it with family or friends by sharing their router password without having to log them into their own Karma accounts on all their devices. On the other hand, it also means they don’t get the benefit of extra bandwidth or credit from random guests connecting. The private hotspot mode can be enabled or disabled at will.
However, Karma isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its own heart. This private access is billed as a “premium feature,” which will cost an extra $15 per month to pay-as-you-go customers and $5 per month to subscription users—with $5 off the first month as a trial offer. It’s also only the first such feature Karma plans to offer; it will be rolling out others in months to come—including ones that should let customers better control their data usage.
I haven’t personally had any problems from strangers connecting to my own Karma Go. Even when they do, I don’t tend to use enough bandwidth at any one time that I’ve noticed a slowdown. I’m not a heavy-enough user that I need to go to a monthly fee—pay-as-you-go works great for me. And the notifications of new users are nice—not so much for the extra bandwidth, which amounts to 50 cents’ worth per customer at the rate at which I’ve always bought data, but for the warm feeling of knowing that I’m making it possible for these folks to check their email or social media—or download e-books!—where they might not have been able to before.
I also haven’t had to use any devices that balk at captive portal logins, but if I should, I have a convenient workaround at my disposal—a CrystalView travel router/repeater that can itself log into captive portals, then pass their signal on via a traditional access point. So I wouldn’t need that aspect of the private hotspot mode either. (For that matter, if I was traveling in a vehicle with power outlets, such as an Amtrak train or a car with an inverter hooked in, I could share it on the go, too.)
The Karma Go router costs $149, but prospective owners can get $10 off via my referral link—which also provides me with $10 credit each time someone uses it. I racked up over $2,000 worth of credit that way during Karma’s first few months, but haven’t had very many at all since the furor over the “unlimited” plan and its repeated cutbacks—apparently Karma’s repeated retreats harmed its reputation significantly. But for the way I personally use bandwidth, I’ve found the Karma Go to be indispensable for using my smartphone or any one of my multiple tablets or Kindles wherever I might be—even in the passenger seat of an SUV tooling down the Interstate!—and also for home use those few times when my cable Internet has been down for service. So I plan to keep right on using it.
Even if the “unlimited” plan debacle left a bad taste in people’s mouths, I’ve never cared for that kind of monthly fee plan. I don’t tend to use huge amounts of mobile bandwidth—you don’t need that much of it for email, web browsing, or—my favorite—downloading e-books. Indeed, even the 100 megabytes you get as a Karma guest would let you download literally dozens of (normal-sized) e-books before you ran out. Plus, providing that access to others helps you out a little, too. So, I think Karma’s pay-as-you-go offering is just right for e-book lovers—especially those who use pay-as-you-go phones that don’t incorporate their own tethering hotspot portal.