Open Garden Lets You Crowdsource Your Mobile Connectivity

What if you couldn’t just share your Internet connection with the few WiFi devices tethered to your phone or hotspot, but with pretty much everybody around you? Open Garden, which is launching at TechCrunch Disrupt today, lets you create a mesh network that ties together all the Open Garden -enabled devices around you into one large network that then automatically shares Internet access and bandwidth between all of these devices. Basically, Open Garden wants to become a crowdsourcing platform for mobile connectivity.

For now, Open Garden works on Android, Windows and Mac (it will be available in the Google Play store after today’s Disrupt demo). In the long run, Open Garden also hopes to make an iOS application available.

The San Francisco-based company was founded in 2011 and has assembled quite an impressive team. Co-founder Micha Benoliel, for example, worked at Skype before starting his own company, and co-founder Stanislav Shalunov has a deep background in Internet infrastructure, including work at Internet 2 and BitTorrent. The company’s third co-founder, Greg Hazel, was previously the lead programmer of the popular BitTorrent client μTorrent.

One especially nifty aspect of this project is that Open Garden used its own networking and P2P expertise to built (and patent) its own discovery mechanisms so devices that run its software can easily detect each other. Given the proprietary nature of this, the company doesn’t talk about the exact details of how it does this publicly, though.

Right now, Open Garden only uses one Internet offramp for the whole mesh network (though it’s worth noting that it breaks down large networks into smaller ones with about ten nodes as well). If the network detects multiple offramps, it currently selects the fastest one available and switches to another one if that node goes offline or slows down.

Soon, says Benoliel, it will also support multi-channel bundling to create a higher data throughput by using multiple on-ramps. Ideally, this could even work if your phone isn’t on a mesh network, as it would allow you to use a WiFi and 3G or 4G network simultaneously. For now, though, the company’s focus is squarely on getting its beta out into the market and making the overall experience as seamless as possible.

The obvious question about a project like this, of course, is about how the carriers will react. Benoliel told me that he isn’t too worried about this, though. He likened it to the arrival of VoIP, a technology that the carriers have now embraced. Carriers will just have to adapt to concepts like this and figure out the best ways to make use of them. The Open Garden team believes that, in the long run, the carriers will understand that they can benefit from being part of Open Garden’s open network.

Ideally, of course, an ad-hoc mesh network like this could also help carriers offload more data from their 3G and 4G networks. While the company didn’t disclose any details, Benoliel told me that Open Garden already has an agreement with one “forward-looking European carrier.”

Other companies that will likely have a hard time appreciating this project are paid WiFi networks like Boingo or GoGo. A phone running Open Garden, after all, could easily provide basic web access to everybody at an airport gate or even on a WiFi-enabled plane.

The company, which is probably one of the first to be based on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, has raised some money in a seed round so far and expects to add on to this round or raise a larger VC round soon.

Disrupt Q&A

Q: Is the plan to sell the app?

A: We want to keep it free. Shooting for a freemium model with extra features like VPN access for business users.

Q: What about security and privacy?

A: The mesh network is encrypted. The device doesn’t let you monitor the traffic on the network.

Q: What about the implications on battery power?

A: Most of the power consumption comes from the data transmission. Open Garden can also help you save some battery by offloading to WiFi, which uses less power than a 3G or 4G connection.

Q: How do you get around the freeloader problem.

A: Open Garden has been thinking about moving to a credit system.

Q: Do you have competition today?

A: We have built a lot of IP. We have a strong competitive advantage there. Competition is in the carrier network offloading business. That’s mostly hardware manufacturers building femotcells etc.