A couple of weeks ago, I looked at a Yahoo column expressing doubt that 4G cellular hotspot company Karma could continue to run its Neverstop unlimited-bandwidth program at the 5 MBPS rate it had at launch—allowing people to use their Karma Go routers with up to 3 devices at a time to do whatever they wanted as long as bandwidth was capped to 5 MBPS.
At the time, I figured that Karma must have used the data it had already gathered on how its routers were used to set a limit it could live with. A lot of people don’t use much in the way of bandwidth at all, and might be paying for more than they’re using. And 5 MBPS is pretty slow overall, so how much data could people really use at that rate?
It turns out I was too optimistic, as the answer to that question is actually “quite a lot.” One of TeleRead’s Neverstop users posted a letter he got, and The Verge has some additional coverage. Karma has found a number of users have been using the service to its limits—effectively setting it up as their primary home Internet. As a result, Karma is looking at throttling the bandwidth cap back further—possibly to as low as 1.5 or 2.5 megabits per second.
[Karma CEO Steven] Van Wel says that a small percentage of its Neverstop customers have racked up usage in the hundreds of gigabytes, and that 59 percent of ones that responded to a survey said they use Karma Go for their home internet. Some have even found ways to bypass Karma’s captive portal system, which is designed to prevent the use of home video streaming devices such as Apple TV or Chromecast and gaming systems like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Van Wel says that the service was never designed for these use cases, and if it is just used for mobile internet access from a phone, tablet, or laptop, the usage rates would not be excessive. The company is currently looking for ways to prevent this kind of activity without having to cut off service to these users entirely.
This captive portal system would also be what limits Neverstop users to three connections at a time. Either way, it’s trivially easy to bypass with a range-extending bridge router, so if the captive-portal nature was actually intended to be a way of limiting bandwidth usage, as opposed to just making sure people can log in with their own distinct accounts to access their individual bandwidth allotments, it wasn’t very well thought-out.
It’s also worth noting that saying the service wasn’t designed for such use cases as connecting gaming systems is a reversal from what Karma had previously said in its FAQ—effectively that if customers could figure out how to make such a device work with a captive portal login, they were welcome to do so. But then, they were probably referring to the Refuel plan that was all Karma offered at the time, in which people paid for every gigabyte they used and would thus have their own incentives to keep usage down. Going to “unlimited” changes the nature of the service considerably.
As Karma explained at the outset, Neverstop wasn’t intended to replace users’ home Internet—it was just meant as a way people could do as much lightweight mobile browsing and streaming as they wanted without having to worry about running up against an arbitrary cap. These kinds of bandwidth-intensive uses—Van Wel’s letter also referred to people binge-watching Netflix in HD all day, or backing up their hard drives over the Internet—were not the sorts of uses for which the service was intended. Effectively, Karma’s all-you-can-eat buffet was overrun by people who snuck in doggy bags.
As much as we would like to imagine that the Internet is the same however you get it, there is still a divide between hard-wired and mobile Internet. Trying to use the mobile Internet in the same way as you would use hard-wired is a recipe for trouble—especially for the people who are providing the mobile Internet.
So, unfortunately, Neverstop is going to have to slow down to keep on providing service, meaning that it may not be as good a deal for its users as it originally seemed. But on the other hand, this doesn’t affect me—I had already decided to stick with the “Refuel” plan, in which I pay per gigabyte for the bandwidth I use. As long as I buy my bandwidth only when they run their buy-one get-one sales, I get it at $5 per GB, which is half the cost of Project Fi’s 4G bandwidth. This makes it my best possible deal for cellular Internet—but I’m certainly not planning to try to use it to replace my landline Internet!
And Karma is still as good a deal as it ever was for people who aren’t high-bandwidth users—especially those who mainly read and surf, rather than stream high-definition video or music or make big uploads or downloads. Since e-books and blog posts and the like are usually not bandwidth-intensive, they probably wouldn’t even notice a difference.