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Karma WiFi–A good concept hampered by Sprint WiMax

Karma Personal Hotspot

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Karma is a small Internet hotspot device that allows you to connect your WiFi devices to Sprint’s soon to be discontinued 4G WiMax service. The business model is unique and quite intriguing in that it allows you to earn more data by sharing your Karma’s hotspot. Each new signup earns a 100 megabyte bucket. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea but there are pitfalls.

Karma Personal WiFi Hotspot
Karma Personal WiFi Hotspot
© Karma Mobility, Inc.

Karma’s slogan is “Bring WiFi with you, everywhere you go”. That is unfortunate because the reality is more like “Bring WiFi with you, but only where Sprint 4G WiMax goes” which is far fewer places than where they claim to go.

Poor Coverage

Despite claims of 85% 3G/4G coverage in major cities like San Francisco, the reality is that Sprint 4G WiMax coverage is far and few in between with actual coverage estimated in the area of 20% of what is actually claimed. For example, the coverage map indicates 4G coverage along the 101 Interstate between SFO and downtown San Francisco. I can say that after making that drive hundreds of times, that is blatantly untrue. There is no usable 3G or 4G signal to be had along the entire drive until you exit into the streets near AT&T ballpark. In general, coverage is decent in wide open areas like parks if there is a signal whereas coverage in dense areas like the financial district cuts on and off from block to block. I drive all over San Francisco and 4G coverage is hit or miss making using Karma an exercise in searching for the ever elusive 4G signal. 3G is available in a wider area but it’s slow to the point of being unusable in modern Internet platforms.

Earning Karma data

Do not get a Karma thinking you will earn free 100 MB data buckets. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not impossible but it’s improbable to the point of being useless. Think about all the factors that must be present before you can earn signups. First you have to be somewhere that has good 4G coverage. As stated earlier, that is a challenge in itself. Now that location has to be where lots of people with devices congregate. Forget about any locations like coffee shops where superior free Wi-Fi already exist. Now that you’re in such a rare spot in the universe, you have to overcome the challenge of people’s hesitance to sign into unknown open WiFi. Lastly, those people must have smartphones but no coverage or no mobile data plan. Considering Sprint 4G WiMax is the worse network, the odds of this happening is rare indeed. In months of testing, I accumulated a total of 5 signups. 2 were in a packed theatre and 3 were at an outdoor music festival packed with tens of thousands of people.

LTE to the rescue?

Karma has been promising LTE since late 2013 with an anticipated ship date of summer 2014 but the rollout has been delayed and there is no firm ship date. Their hope is mid-September 2014 with a vague promise of a big discount for current Karma owners. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Everything is trending against the need for Karma

The trend is more free, open Wi-Fi. The list of locations offering free WiFi grows daily. Starbucks is switching from AT&T to Google WiFi offering much faster and more robust free WiFi at Starbucks. Everyday, more and more people are getting smartphones so WiFi only mobile devices become increasingly rare. Additionally, Sprint’s competition continues to improve coverage and speed while Sprint plays catch up. There will always be a need for personal mobile Internet hotspots but I believe it'll be a niche category at best.

Should you get Karma?

Well that really depends on where you are and your needs. If you get good 4G WiMax coverage and have a need to connect WiFi only devices, it’s worth a look along with Karma competitors such as FreedomPop. Keep in mind FreedomPop uses the same Sprint 4G WiMax network so it really just comes down to comparing prices. If you want usable coverage, you’re better off looking at offerings from mobile carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon but it will cost you much more for the same amount of data. Ultimately, expensive usable data connections are worth more than inexpensive unusable data connections. Consider how much your time is worth searching around for a good signal. You’ll probably past several Starbucks before you spot that elusive WiMax 4G signal.