Karma Wifi Hotspot review: Feel good about sharing your connection

High per-gigabyte pricing and weak coverage hurt an otherwise interesting model for mobile data.

Whether it's to get our Wifi-only tablets online, save battery on our phones or simply diversify to have connections from multiple carriers, many turn to a mobile hotspot for their data needs. Most hotspots follow a very similar billing model as a phone — pay every month for a certain amount of data, and at the start of the next month you have the same amount of data refreshed.

The Karma Wifi Hotspot is different, and for a specific set of people it may just be a great go-to device if you just need some extra data here and there. At the simplest level, Karma is a pay-as-you-go mobile hotspot. You purchase the device itself for $99 and refill data onto it at the rate of $14 per 1GB (or less if you buy in bulk). The data doesn't expire at the end of the month, though, it actually never expires.

But that isn't Karma's only trick. Your hotspot is open for any other Karma user to take advantage of — and if someone else logs into your hotspot, you'll both be rewarded with free data that gets added right onto your data balance. Read along and learn how Karma is hoping to be your next choice for pay-as-you-go data.

Give up a little control and be rewarded

Karma Wifi Hotspot

Here's how the system works. Whenever your Karma hotspot is turned on, it's open for anyone to access. When someone connects and opens up their browser, they'll be prompted to sign up for Karma. If they're a member already (or its just you on a new device), they just sign in and start using their own data bucket. Regardless of which Karma hotspot you're actually connected to, you only use your data, not the other person's. The data usage is tied to your account, not your device. Smart.

So what's the benefit to having an open hotspot? When someone joins your device, you and the person connecting both receive 100MB of free data. Yup, completely free. In my couple weeks of carrying a Karma hotspot around in downtown Seattle, I had eight people sign up and use my connection — that's 800MB of free data I get to use that I didn't pay for. Presumably the system works even better if Karma gets extremely popular, but considering that I didn't expect a single person to log into my hotspot, I was pleasantly surprised.

You'll get solid coverage in 80 cities across the U.S., and no coverage in the other 19,000.

You may notice I've been remiss in not mentioning what network Karma is running on. It's a painful point to make, but Karma takes advantage (or is it disadvantage?) of the Clearwire WiMax network for its only source of data, there's no Sprint 3G fallback. Clearwire hasn't really expanded much since it was Sprint's first bet on 4G, and at this point it covers just over 80 (albeit some of the biggest) cities across the U.S. There's no sugar coating it, you'll get service in the biggest cities in the country and that's it — be sure to check out the coverage map.

Being in one of the best areas in the nation for WiMax coverage, Seattle, I actually didn't have many issues with the connection aside from a few random network drops. Karma says you can expect 3 to 6mbps down and 1.5mbps up, and that's about what I experienced. This certainly isn't an LTE network, but it does work pretty darn well if your expectations are in check and you're in the right city.

Does Karma actually make sense for you?

Karma Wifi Hotspot

Karma is a pretty interesting system with this wrinkle of sharing to receive "good karma" that actually makes it a compelling choice for very light data users. Unfortunately, even with all this free data floating about, Karma probably isn't a very good value for most people.

The cost-per-gigabyte is average, but the data doesn't refresh every month.

At $14 per gigabyte, it's about average when compared to other prepaid hotspot data plans. Sure, the data doesn't expire, but that actually makes Karma feel more expensive as you're worried about every megabyte you use. If I pay a carrier like Straight Talk $40 (opens in new tab) I get 4GB of data (or $25 for 2GB) for a month — and if I pay again the next month I get another 4GB. Other carriers offer pay-as-you-go data at the tune of about $10 per gigabyte, and it renews every single month if you need more. Further, those carriers are giving you LTE speeds and a nationwide network — not 3G-like speeds in 80 cities.

Karma does let you buy data in buckets of 5GB for $59 ($11.80/GB), 10GB for $99 ($9.90/GB) and even 20GB for $180 ($9/GB) — though it seems the 20GB option is only available at your first purchase. If you only refill with the most cost-effective 10GB buckets, that works out to 1.67GB per month for a year at $16.67 per month, with data that rolls over from one month to the next if you don't use it.

Update: Since this review was written, Karma has added a new "Auto-Refill" option for its data. When activated, your hotspot will automatically top up a new bucket of data whenever your balance dips below 200MB. You can set up Auto-Refill to add 1, 5 or 10GB each time your balance gets low.

Karma Wifi Hotspot

If you use less than 2GB per month, live in the right place and play your cards right, Karma could be a good choice.

That's a lot of numbers and calculations, but it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that Karma only makes sense for lighter data users. If you're buying a hotspot to just get your tablet or laptop online a handful of times per month when the coffee shop's Wifi is slow or inoperable, Karma may actually be a good choice — provided you live in one of the 80 Karma-covered cities. If you use a small enough amount of data, you may be able to skirt by on mostly 100MB handouts with a $59 5GB top-up from time to time.

But if you're a heavier user that's looking for a hotspot to give you data redundancy against the carrier your phone is using, need to push 2GB or more per month through that hotspot or ever travel outside of the biggest cities in the U.S., there are plenty of other choices that are contract-free, cheaper per gigabyte and offer better speeds and coverage. If Karma were to drop its prices roughly 30 percent this would be a different story, but for now your money is often better spent elsewhere.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

  • I guess I thought WiMax was dead. It never did work well in Chicago and I can't believe Sprint is investing in it anymore. Great idea, though.
  • I believe Sprint is legally required to make use of the spectrum. I am sure the reason Sprint is having all these MVNO's use wimax is interesting ways is because they yet have enough LTE coverage on those bands to avoid loosing their spectrum. Once they have LTE deployed enough on 800Mhz, I imagine all these companies are going to mysteriously shut down.
  • This is correct. They had to do it when they did or lose the spectrum. Lte was not ready back then so they went with What they had. Now that lte is around though, I am pretty sure they are not doing anything to build up Wimax. Just utilizing the equipment that is already there -------------------------------------------
    Kit Kat tastes like Jellybeans. Can't tell them apart...
  • oops, I meant 2500Mhz
  • Meh, what's a couple of mhz between friends -------------------------------------------
    Kit Kat tastes like Jellybeans. Can't tell them apart...
  • FreedomPop is another outfit that offers something similar. Posted via Android Central App
  • Wait, the network has to be open? So, what happens if I hop on and start using a packet sniffer to get your information?
  • Good point. Posted via Android Central App
  • Guess the only option is to set up an encrypted VPN. Posted via Android Central App
  • Excellent point and something many are simply not aware of, in particular when using public Wi-Fi hotspots. They sure are convenient, but at a cost to your security. Personally, that's the kind of karma I'm not going to mess with and a big reason I choose to stick with Verizon and their vast LTE coverage (along with my grandfathered unlimited data!); never need Wi-Fi!. :P
  • What an odd concept... Posted via Android Central App
  • What a ridiculous price.
    Not paying that. In Other news, Comcast has a wifi network that is free to all Comcast customers.
    They do it by putting a separate guest network on every comcast wifi router. They insist it won't use up your bandwidth or be able to break into your house network (different Vlan). Its free, because it requires nothing but software for them to provide it.
  • "Not paying that" But you're a Comcast customer? :P
  • Lol. You had me til WiMax. You're good. :-) Sent from The LG-G2.
  • One thing I make no apologies for is using my phone as a Hotspot. I do not abuse it, maybe 500mb a month, but nonetheless... And no, no one else can or will connect to it. Like it was pointed out, what is to stop a sniffer? I am sure they have something weak in place... -------------------------------------------
    Kit Kat tastes like Jellybeans. Can't tell them apart...
  • No WI max coverage in my city. Posted via Android Central App
  • I still have my hot spot through clear... $45/ month for unlimited data...works in most parts of Miami where I go. That karma hot spot is the same exact one I use with clear. Posted via Android Central App
  • Yup those Clearwire hotspots were a decent deal for someone who lived in an area with good coverage. I considered one for a while but since Sprint completed its buyout of Clearwire they're no longer offering these to new customers.
  • Isn't Sprint shutting down the Wimax network next year? Posted via Android Central App
  • nothing official on that. I kinda think 2016
  • Even if they're not, it's not a great service for speed. Like 3.5G at best.
  • Like the name of the wifi router. Karma is gonna get ya. (For having weak or no signal at all.) LOL
  • This is a great idea. Except for the wimax part. Posted via Android Central App
  • Doesn't Starbucks have Wi-Fi already? (see the picture of the cup and karma hotspot). I had an Evo 4G Wimax phone. When it was good is was awesome. But when it was bad, it was really bad. Drained the battery like no other and calls and texts were sporadic. No thanks.
  • Starbucks and plenty of other public stores and places have Wifi, but that doesn't mean the quality is high. Sometimes the places with free Wifi have dozens of users on an access point, slowing it down below tolerable levels, or it's down altogether.
  • True but my point aligns with yours that slow karma is just as bad as slow wifi at starbucks Posted via Android Central App
  • Getting ~4mbps down and ~1mbps up is a lot faster than your average Starbucks connection. But point taken regardless.
  • "...there are plenty of other choices that are contract-free, cheaper per gigabyte and offer better speeds and coverage." Such as...?
  • I pointed out Straight Talk. But Verizon and AT&T do PAYG for data sticks if you're a customer already... there's also T-Mobile, Simple Mobile and others.
  • T-Mobile offers 2.5 GB per month of Mobile Hotspot usage free with their Unlimited Nationwide 4G service.
  • Right. And not everyone wants to use their battery hotspotting on the phone. Or they want to share a hotspot device between people. Or they're not T-Mobile customers :) .
  • All valid reasons. Still, it's an option for the 1/2 hour or so a month I require such a service.
  • Right. I don't think that someone who uses hotspotting that casually will ever see use in having a dedicated device — and that exemplifies why Karma is in a weird spot.
  • I like Karma.
  • Thanx for post... i truly like karma for wifi.
  • I got an internet-go hotspot at Walmart but could never get the thing to work, even though there's supposed to be good wimax coverage throughout the Houston area. It sounds like I should have got a Karma hotspot instead. Cost is similar plus Karma lets you earn free data. Plus maybe Karma would have worked. :D
  • I don't understand. Why don't you just tether to your phone? These prices are unbelievable. Posted via Android Central App
  • So if the wifi is totally open, how secure is it?
  • Cool wallpaper on the first photo, anyone know where I could find this??
  • Sign up for a karma hotspot using this link, and get a Free 500MB towards Karma Hotspot Data. htt ps : // yourkarma . com/invite/hntayh the reason i am doing this is because i get some data for referring you too. spread the word I use this hotspot, it works great, its fast and its the cheapest pre paid, pay as you go , no contract hotspot.
  • Karma is releasing there new Karma Go hotspot by the end of the year which will now work with the Sprint 4G LTE network with fallback to 3G and support for the new Sprint Spark. Data speeds will be 6 to 8 Mbps download (peaks to 25 Mbps) and 2 to 3 Mbps upload. Data prices remain the same at $14 per GB with no expiration or monthly fees (less than $10 per GB if you buy 10 GB for $99). For the next few days it's available to pre-order for $99. Save $10 with the link below (remove spaces from URL):
    htt ps : // yourkarma . com/invite/avvfnh I had a chance to try out the existing version that uses WiMax while on vacation and 5 people connected, so I got 500 free MB. It was easy to set up and use but the connection was a little inconsistent on WiMax. Hopefully the new one will provide a solid connection on LTE and it will definitely have better coverage.
  • The release date got moved back to April 2015, but the $99 deal is still active. However, when you sign up you get the option to "offer your friends" $10 off ($89 total). Here's the $89 link they gave me, if anyone's interested: https://yourkarma.com/invite/joseph6776