FON showed great promise, attacking the fragmented wifi hotspot market and placing pressure on 3G broadband providers by harnessing the energy of the very people that would benefit from its service. The promise of a disruptive user-owned global wifi network was a large part of the company’s marketing, playing on the iconography and language of revolution. With $22m in funding from Google, Skype and venture capitalists, the company seemed poised for success…so what went wrong?

FON's La Fonera wireless access point & router

Only the FON-ely...FON-liness Of The Long Distance Runner. Yes, I had a whole bank of puns to title this post. They’ll all aptly tragic in telling the tale of a promising piece of web worker infrastructure that has in essence become a network of very lonely and isolated hotspots…

I first came across FON at O’Reilly’s Emerging Telephony 2006 conference, as then company evangelist Ejovi Nuwere outlined a vision of a global wifi network built from the grassroots, owned and operated by its users. Ejovi explained that users installing a FON hotspot would be able to earn revenue from its use or, if they agreed to charge no access fee, use every other FON hotspot at no cost when travelling away from home.

A few months later I recieved a complimentary La Fonera router, becoming the 4089th ‘Fonero’ (currently there are 671’363 users). A few days ago, I switched off my La Fonera, packaging it for an eBay bidder that paid just $17. Now the thing is, none of those 671’362 other Fonero’s hotspots were in places I where I needed connectivity…

FON showed great promise, attacking the fragmented wifi hotspot market and placing pressure on 3G broadband providers by harnessing the energy of the very people that would benefit from its service. The promise of a disruptive user-owned global wifi network was a large part of the company’s marketing, playing on the iconography and language of revolution. With $22m in funding from Google, Skype and venture capitalists, the company seemed poised for success…so what went wrong?

  • FON-liness! FON is not where you need it despite their partnerships with telcos and municipalities, I’ve yet to find a FON location when I needed one. Airports, railway stations, gas stations are well served by national wifi providers. These are the location owners FON needed to align with. I’m not going to need broadband parked up outside some guys house, but I’ll need it waiting for a train to London.
  • Crazy ass distractions at FON labs with the development of Gmail uploaders, URL squeezers and Facebook status tools are an unneccessary waste of resources. 20% time is only valuable when the other 80% is making a real difference to the business. It also indicates to investors that the founders are bored with the core business of the company.
  • Basic hardware has been a constant frustration for Foneros, with the inexpensive La Fonera lacking many features common to Linksys, Belkin and other cheap routers (like more than one port!). Indeed, FON missed a strategic blunder in failing to convince those very manufacturers to add FON-like capabilities to their products out of the box. It can be argued the FON’s firmware is its core asset and proliferating that – agnostic of hardware – was a keystone strategy.

In 2006, I argued that my employers, Orange UK, could partner with FON to create the world’s largest hotzone. My superiors convinced me that if Orange wanted to do that, they could simply upgrade the firmware of all their domestic hotspots – without FON. FON’s potential role as a organisation that could enable roaming between multiple wifi networks was sadly unexplored.

So sadly the promise of FON’s $5 wireless router and it’s community-grown network is almost irrelevant. However, Web workers have many more options available to them. Take my advice and eBay that La Fonera…I’ll be putting that $17 towards an Airport Extreme :)

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  1. martin varsavsky Friday, June 20, 2008

    If you lived in London and enjoyed BTFon you would find Fon almost everywhere. If you lived in Tokyo as you can see in the Fon maps you would also find Fon in over 60% of downtown Tokyo. But in the States so far we have not been able to achieve density. Still we have many Bill foneros in the States who don´t care much about density, they just make money with http://www.fon.com.

    And your comments about Fon labs are unreasonable since we do all that work with only 2 coders who work directly for me. All the other coding resources of Fon are with Fon.

  2. Hi Martin – thanks for your additional comments on the reporting structure of the FON labs team; without knowing the structure it’s hard to fathom what these projects add to FON, being so far outside FON’s core business and they are branded FON labs implying some relationship with the company. It’s a perception issue that perhaps needs to be addressed.

    On density, I regularly commute into London for business meetings. I’m sorry, but I’ve sadly been unable to get FON access when I need to at train stations airports and cafes.

    Unfrotunately, Tokyo is inconventient for me, but living in Northern England, in a cornubation of 15m people (25% of the country) along the 120 mile M62 corridor between Hull and Liverpool. In hopping around various cities for work, I rarely come across a FON hotspot in a downtown area where its most likely to be needed.

    Forgive me for curtness, but as a 2.5 year-long La Fonera user, I’ve found it to be of little value to my heavily mobile web worker lifestyle and in that regard the venture has not meeting my needs and in private conversations with telco staffers and consultants, there’re few that find such value.

  3. I was one of the first to jump on FON, and it just never caught on in places I needed it (San Francisco and Portland). I was one of the very few in Portland to use it. I disconnected it, and soon received the emails practically begging me to turn it back on.

  4. Tarique Naseem Friday, June 20, 2008

    Yeh, Imran, stop making FON of them.
    (Sorry; had to be said)

  5. @Tarique yes, you’re FONtain of knowledge…

  6. FON sounds really cool, but when I got mine in the mail it didn’t work at all. I might have just gotten a defective one but I guess I’m just a little down on the service since then.

  7. I must strongly object whenever Martin Varsavsky blames the USA for failing to develop into a thriving Fon

    community. Fon has shipped many routers here, and provided routers for several gay pride events(!), but precious

    little else. The USA was full of enthusiastic Foneros who kept busy building and planning and promoting Fon while

    waiting for the Fon-train that never arrived to pick them up. Many members throughout the English speaking Fon

    community have complained about being ignored and abandoned! Fon has only quietly maintained 1-2 permanent

    employees for the whole USA, and suprisingly, never ventured into Mexico or Canada.

    The problem is Fon’s business model: conscript as many true-believers as possible to volunteer their resources,

    and sell the company profitably. This is what MV verifiably does with ALL of his ventures. I admired Martin when

    I first joined Fon, and he is undoubtedly an extremely charismatic personality, but I no longer accept a single

    thing he says at face value.

    Some points of ponder: Martin’s blog says Aliens are not Foneros, and Fon says that to be a Fonero you must host

    a Fon hotspot. Foneros may host more than one hotspot, and many do so. However, Martin also says there are 830K*

    Foneros, but only 332K* Fon hotspots have ever been registered. Also that only 212K* remain active. You can see

    what is wrong with this math! Logically, there should be somewhat fewer Foneros than Fon hotspots. It means that

    he *does* count every Alien, many of whom consist only of an unverified email address submitted for “free 15

    minutes” of wifi.

    *late May, 2006

    Fon’s hotspot locator map and GPS coordinate file downloads are demonstrably inaccurate. Hotspots remain marked

    on the map years after they have been unplugged, and the POI/GPS files are full of obviously bogus data, and

    never get purged. FrancoFON, a group who develops an unsanctioned firmware enhancement for Fon’s proprietary

    routers, polls Fon’s mapdata server daily. They come up with considerably lower numbers of registered hotspots

    (206K*) and active hotspots (95K*).

    Also, I share your misgivings about Fon Labs. Fon has abandoned improvement of wifi-related matters like the

    login interface, hotspot administration and ISP compatability, for projects which possibly reflect Martin’s

    interests after selling Fon.

    Other matters of worry include how payments are divided up. Fon has long suggested that money collected from

    Aliens is “split” between Bill Foneros and Fon. It comes to light that what they really split is whatever is left

    after approx 1/3 is deducted for “fees and taxes”. In my blog, i’ve illustrated what we presume these f&t to be in the UK. However, Fon refuses to verify it, and i’ve been struggling over the last week to get USA f&t information from Fon’s very unhelpful Customer Care. I’m corresponding directly with Arthur Gallanter, who is also Fon’s new English Forum Moderator, and son of Fon’s “Chief USA Fonero” Joanna Rees-Gallanter. Let’s just say he doesn’t know the meaning of customer care. He’s provided numerous factually wrong answers, deliberately misunderstood my questions, and pulled every other trick in the book to evade helping me. He’s warned me that CC has now been coached to provide the same non-answers as he has, and that I should just give up. He signs his emails “Goodbye”, as if that wasn’t blunt enough. As “Board Moderator”, he’s singled me out and warned me that none of my posts may now reflect any negativity for Fon, as he feels I haven’t been “balanced” enough.

  8. Sorry about that terrible formatting! Darn Notepad! :D

  9. Thanks AustinTX, your investigations add some additional further evidence to the debate that the FON community is in decline. I’ve also seen ‘phantom hotspots’ in my city here which I know for sure are deactivated, but are still listed years later…however at the time it simply seemed to be a problem in maintaining accuracy, but perhaps the time lag is increasing?

  10. For example, my own Linksys Fon router has been turned off (repurposed) for almost exactly a year now. It’s icon still appears on the Fon Map, and it’s address is in the POI file download. Others have complained that theirs remained on the map for far longer.

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