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Summary:

Fon is hoping to generate buzz for its community Wi-Fi service from the hip residents of Brooklyn. It’s targeting the borough’s downtown for a dense hotspot and residential deployment.

Crowdsourced Wi-Fi provider Fon’s launch in the U.S. has been a bit disappointing. In October, it announced big plans to bring its service back to American shores, but its signature Wi-Fi router, the Fonera, hasn’t started shipping yet. And though it’s started signing up community members, it hasn’t exactly broken any recruitment records. Only about 1,000 future ‘Foneros’ are on its list.

Fon, however, is planning a surgical strike of sorts in New York City in the next few weeks with the goal of building some momentum. Fon’s bandwidth-sharing model works best when it has dense clusters of members all in the same geographical area – in the U.K., France and Japan, Fon is in one of every six households thanks to its partnerships with local carriers. So Fon has decided to target one particular NYC neighborhood: downtown Brooklyn.

First, Fon is bringing its community network to hot zones, working with the New York Economic Development Corporation and DAS Communications to install outdoor Foneras in high-traffic commercial corridors in downtown Brooklyn. Second, its recruiting Brooklyn businesses into the network with the help of the Downtown Brooklyn Project in hopes of bring 50 to 150 storefronts online. And finally, it’s giving 1,000 Foneras to Brooklyn residents in an effort to seed neighborhood streets with Wi-Fi signals.

Fonera Scale shared Wi-Fi router

The project is one of seemingly dozens of local Wi-Fi projects going on in the Big Apple. On Tuesday, the city announced plans to build a hotspot network covering 95 blocks in Harlem. Gowex has deployed 2,000 hotspots in commercial corridors throughout the city. While Fon’s outdoor hotspots will also be free to the public, they’ll also form part of Fon’s larger crowdsourced community network.

Fon’s model is pretty simple: if you share your Wi-Fi with the community, you get access to every other community member’s Wi-Fi. Fon’s router splits its signal into private and community networks, so members’ privacy is protected. Globally it has about 12.3 million access points, but in the U.S. the number is still tiny – mainly the handful of people who have either brought in Foneras from overseas and the veterans of Fon’s aborted attempt to the enter the U.S. seven years ago.

To grow and ultimately make its network useful to members, it needs to create a groundswell of users in specific locations. That’s the same hurdle that homegrown bandwidth-sharing startups like Open Garden and Karma face as well. Fon has managed much of its growth through partnering with carriers and ISPs like BT and SoftBank, which ship Fon’s software in their home wireless gateways. Collectively those carriers’ customers account for 80 percent of Fon’s members.

Fon’s U.S. CEO Nina Sodhi has said that the company is in active negotiations with U.S. carriers and cable companies, and it’s already struck a limited deal with AT&T for international data roaming. If Fon lands a Comcast or other big provider as a partner it could see its subscriber base grow rapidly.

But there’s also trade-off. Typically when Fon strikes a deal with an ISP, its Wi-Fi community becomes exclusive to the ISP’s customers in that particular market. If you want to participate in the Fon community, you have to buy your broadband connections from its partners. Fon is basically trading openness for scale.

It will be interesting to see how Fon grows here in the next few years, but its experiment in Brooklyn should be a good indication of whether Fon has a chance of growing its community organically.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Songquan Deng

  1. Kevin, I’m glad to see you’ve corrected much of the revisionist PR spin from your last fon article. Please treat this topic with extra care, and seek independent sources to back up all statements from fon representatives. Especially vital is checking the statistics that come from fon. Archive.org will be your friend, as fon’s torpedoed their old discussion forums. Be journalistic and call fon back for clarification. If they seem hostile to examination, and I’m betting they will be, give ‘em the heave-ho. I speak from experience, as I was their unofficial, but most widely-read English speaking FAN blogger.

    Not to be nit-picky, but in mentioning fon’s original USA launch, you linked to an old Om article about fon partnerships with Time Warner. This actually came in the years after the launch. The 2006 launch was simultaneous worldwide, including USA, which included free router firmware, selling pre-modified Linksys routers and later free fonera 1.0′s. Countries which couldn’t order foneras locally, ordered them from fon’s USA distribution hub!

    Fon almost immediately turned to partnerships and hardware sales due to lack of sufficient income from wifi sales – but they didn’t pull out of USA, like they did in closing offices in other countries. Fon was in USA from the start, and all along since then, though they didn’t invest in the USA community other than to sell merch here. The “partnerships” don’t represent much of a boon to foneros because none of the roaming agreements are reciprocal. Fon claims otherwise, and they might be right, if you ignore numerous unmentioned conditions and caveats which alter the picture drastically.

    Ask Nina Sodhi if she isn’t fon ceo martin varsavsky’s WIFE. What you quoted her saying in the last article certainly sounds like what fon would have liked to be true, but it was so pat, I have difficulty seeing how it could have come from honest miscommunication. Fon’s map POI database listed 14,205 fon hotspots in the USA on May 21, 2008. Given that brute-force validation of live fon hotspots by the Francofon fans, plus fon’s sales claims suggests that only 21% of all foneras had ever been put online. So there were perhaps 70,000 foneras sold and given away in USA by that time. This number undoubtedly grew between 2008-2013. Does 70k, or even 14K sound like “a few veterans plus a ton of expats”?

    As Nina is now the USA fon ceo, I wonder what happened to Joanna Rees-Gallanter? She hung in there a number of years as merely “USA lead fonero” before martin finally granted her a “fon usa ceo” title. Her son Seth interned at fon in Spain, and seemed to have become like a second son to him, flying back to Spain for varsavsky family vacations, even after Seth returned to the USA for college.

    Kevin, feel free to contact me. I’m eager to talk about wifi sharing and fon’s baby steps. My blog continues to enjoy a steady stream of human visits to my POE and de-bricking tutorials every day. It is also a rich source of information about fon. You’ll be interested in seeing the unrevised timeline of events recorded there.

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