Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

RovAir Aims to Be the Airbnb of Mobile Broadband Plans

Got a mobile broadband device that you only really use a few times a month? Me, too.


If you’re sick of two-year contracts and monthly fees that go mostly to a gadget that sits idle in your bag until you’re out of range, there are a couple of alternative options.

Some of the prepaid carriers, such as Virgin Mobile, let you pay for data only on days that you use the device. A variety of upstarts, such as Karma and Niklas Zennstrom-backed FreedomPop, offer a limited amount of data at very low cost. For those who really only need occasional data use, such as for a particular trip, there are even companies that rent out mobile broadband devices.

One such company, RovAir, wants to move from renting devices to a new kind of business model. Five-year-old RovAir intends to control a bunch of mobile broadband accounts, and allow people to plug in to them only when they need service, at a cost of about $1 per hour, with no membership fees or contracts.

But, unlike companies like Karma and FreedomPop that buy service on a wholesale basis from one of the major carriers, RovAir’s approach is to open a bunch of standard data card accounts that it essentially subleases to its customers. RovAir says it has a set-up with Verizon Wireless that will enable its model to work, though it didn’t talk details, and Verizon declined to comment.

RovAir is currently preselling plans via an Indiegogo campaign, and expects to launch in about two weeks.

CEO Tom Dolan says he likes to think of his venture as sort of Airbnb for broadband, where access is collaboratively consumed by a community of users. But that analogy only goes so far, because, instead of sharing devices, RovAir users are sharing mobile broadband service. Each customer will need their own device, either one they own or an older 3G data card that RovAir has acquired on the secondary market.

Just how well this will fly with consumers and with Verizon will be interesting to see. Consumers have lots of options these days when it comes to alternate broadband carriers, and many of the others have either big-name backers, a big brand name, or both. RovAir, meanwhile, is hoping to raise $45,000 on Indiegogo.

Still, it is interesting to see yet another effort to change the economics of data pricing.

There are some additional caveats. Because each RovAir session will need to be activated online, users will have to either turn the device on before they leave a Wi-Fi network, or visit the RovAir site from a smartphone to turn it on.

Also, while RovAir plans to offer flat-rate pricing for typical usage, Dolan said the company will have to charge people more if they routinely use tons of data, though exact pricing for that has yet to be determined.

AllThingsD’s Ina Fried contributed to this report.

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