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Could You Spare Some Internet Access?

An app called Open Garden lets users share wireless bandwidth, and could reduce network congestion—if carriers don’t revolt.

Though the idea of having Internet available everywhere is no longer a fantasy, it’s not quite reality, either. Many of us carry smart phones everywhere we go, but we don’t always have a high-speed data or Wi-Fi connection. And in many places, Internet access can still be hard to find.

Get connected: The Open Garden app lets you to share a wireless connection with others, forming a mesh network as shown here.

Open Garden wants to change this. The San Francisco–based startup recently rolled out a smart-phone app that lets you connect to the Internet by piggybacking on the Web access of other Open Garden app users, using peer-to-peer connections that form a mesh network. The company’s hope is that, in addition to making Internet access ubiquitous, Open Garden will become a platform on top of which developers can build new kinds of mobile services.

Though the app may excite some consumers, it’s likely to face pushback from wireless carriers, which currently charge both for tethering services that allow you to share your smart phone’s wireless data connection with a laptop and for wireless hotspots that allow several gadgets to access the Web at once. Open Garden is hoping carriers will come around once they realize that its app may help relieve congestion on their clogged data networks.

Cofounder and CEO Micha Benoliel, an entrepreneur whose past experiences include helping Skype roll out the features that let users make calls to or from landlines and cell phones, thought of the concept behind Open Garden a while back. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he felt smart phones had grown popular enough that it could work.

The Open Garden app was released last month in an open beta test for mobile devices running Google’s Android software, and there is an Open Garden app for Macs and PCs as well. Benoliel would also like to release a version of the app for Apple’s iOS platform, but he says he’ll need approval from Apple before that is possible.

Once you’ve installed Open Garden and opened it up, it runs in the background, quietly managing connections between devices with the help of Bluetooth.

Looking at the app on your smart-phone screen, you can see all the devices around you that are running Open Garden, and see how each is connected to the Internet—sometimes directly, sometimes through another person’s connection, sometimes through the connection of a person who is latched on to yet another person’s connection—as well as your connection speed.

While demonstrating Open Garden at a San Francisco café, Benoliel said that the company has developed a patented method by which nearby gadgets can recognize each other without the need for users to intervene. He said that Open Garden sniffs around for available Web-connected devices, choosing the best way to get online automatically, and that the person with the original connection is prioritized over others.

A future version of the app will be able to consolidate data streams coming from two different networks to improve Web-surfing speed, Benoliel said, and it will let users decide how much data they want to share (helpful for those with limited data plans). And though Open Garden users are currently forced to share their networks with all comers, Benoliel said it will eventually allow users to decide whom they want to share with. The company is also considering a credit system under which users who share Web access with strangers will get credits they can then use to hop onto strangers’ networks.

Kevin Restivo, a senior analyst with IDC, thinks Open Garden is most likely to resonate with consumers in emerging mobile markets like Africa, where relatively few people have cell phones, incomes are low, and people are more likely to share phone service.

I was able to use Open Garden to surf the Internet on a smart phone using the Firefox Mobile browser (currently, you must use Firefox to browse with Open Garden if you’re on an Android device, along with a browser add-on). Video, which was streaming via another phone’s 4G connection, looked a bit stilted, but overall the quality wasn’t bad.

Benoliel concedes that wireless carriers may look askance at the app, given existing data-sharing rules. But he’s confident that they will eventually embrace it, as they have done with other technologies like VoIP. One unnamed mobile operator has already agreed to test the service, he said.

The technology could make carriers’ networks more efficient, Benoliel argues. At a time when wireless companies are struggling to provide enough bandwidth to satisfy an ever-increasing number of mobile users, Open Garden has the potential to reduce data network traffic by routing users through Wi-Fi networks, he says, ultimately saving the service providers money. “What we do improves the network at the edge,” he said.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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