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Share Your WiFi, Earn Some Cash, Do Some Good

Can selling access to your personal WiFi bridge the digital divide?

You probably can’t use all the bandwidth you pay for each month on your home internet plan. The standard residential Comcast plan offers users 250 GB a month—maxing out would entail sending 50 million emails—and the median user draws only two to three gigs a month. Adam Black, founder of KeyWiFi, wants to put all that excess capacity to good use—and earn you some money in the process.

Right now, about a third of Americans don’t have access to broadband at home. The biggest cost isn’t the computer, it’s the monthly connection—just as your cell service contract is usually a bigger expense than the cost of the phone. Black argues that a peer-to-peer approach to sharing wireless bandwidth will cut that cost for urban dwellers.

“The way we look at the world is there’s lots of spare bandwidth out there, just like there’s lots of cars parked on the street and lots of spare rooms,” Black says, referencing two already-successful markets for collaborative consumption services, personal car sharing and peer-to-peer room rentals. He wants to do the same, making KeyWiFi the AirBnB of internet access.

Black gives the example of a retail store with an average internet connection. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and “right next door to that shop, living above it or across the street, are lots of kids in average- or low-income families who cannot afford $700 a year to get online.”

Black wants to make it possible for that shop to set up a wireless hotspot anyone can access for an affordable monthly fee. Eventually, he says, his technology could let the hotspot owners customize public access, allowing no more than two people to log on to the network during the day but unlimited use at night, for example. “It’s kind of like time-share WiFi,” Black says. Each user paying KeyWiFi a monthly fee of about $10, two-thirds of which gets kicked back to the hotspot hosts.

Landlords have been interested, too. “Not only would service charges cover heat and gardening, but also WiFi,” Black theorizes. By that model, landlords would buy bulk bandwith at a discount from sharing-friendly ISPs, and dole it out using KeyWiFi to tenants, lowering the cost for everyone to $10 a month—though that could mean slower service, depending on how much bandwidth the landlord buys.

Another possible application is public housing. KeyWiFi is piloting a program with the East River Development Alliance, a community group in Long Island City, Queens where about 3,000 families live in public housing. It’s a natural place to prove that lowering the monthly cost of logging on can increase the reach and social promise of the internet. KeyWiFi has launched an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to help fund the program.

It would become a “natural mesh network” Black says, with some higher-income families signing up to host, and others choosing which neighbor to piggyback off of. “There are people there who will not get online” on their own, but they would if their neighbors had a hotspot.“By acting locally in your own self interest, to maximize your bandwidth use,” he says, “you are helping to expand the internet.”

The system is entirely web-based, so users buy an account from KeyWiFi to access the company’s open hotspots. KeyWiFi has developed a system that tells the network who is logging on and through which router, enabling people to keep their networks private or semi-private.

The company will divide fees based on how many hotspots users tap into: If you use just one hotspot, the two-thirds of your monthly fee all goes to that one supplier. If you use two or more, it gets split between the two you used most. “As we grow we will reduce our commission,” he says. “We’ll set a price that people think is fair.” Some customers, like cafes or public businesses, could reap real benefits. “If they get 20 to 30 people to sign on, they can turn a profit.”

True peer-to-peer bandwidth sharing, though, depends on whether current internet service providers allow their bandwidth to be re-sold, and most residential plans don’t. ISPs aren’t keen on letting people resell their product for a profit, especially when it would mean they have to foot the bill for the increased demand for bandwidth.

“The fact that some ISPs are choosing not to see this opportunity is a bit of a shame,” Black says of those that prevent reselling bandwidth, precluding their customers from hosting a KeyWiFi hot spot.

However, not all ISPs are against the idea. The FCC requires cable and phone companies to grant access to their networks to smaller internet service providers who can resell bandwidth they buy in bulk as they see fit, so Black plans to work with those ISPs to start. Some of them are socially conscious, while others are flying under the residential customer radar, targeting small businesses or other specific market segments. Black thinks the chance to turn the idle asset of excess bandwidth into a revenue-raiser will motivate customers to switch ISPs, and that smaller ones will want to pick up the business.

Image courtesy of The Public Society.

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