FONing a WiFi Revolution

37 Comments

Updated with comments from Guru Glenn and Tech Dirt

In times of adversity great ideas emerge.

The post-millenium world’s biggest adversity is the monopolistic control over the broadband pipes in many countries including United States. Not a day passes when you read a news story about an incumbent creating stumbling blocks in the path of a city or a municipality trying to take control of its own destiny and building its own infrastructure. But today I learned of a brand new way, think of it broadband version of civil disobedience, that can wants to upend the broadband power structure. It could make life difficult for those who spent billions on 3G in Europe and incumbents who are planning to turn Internet into a toll road.

Meet FON, brainchild of Martin Varsavsky. The organization that was started in November this year is based in Spain, and in the simplest terms is “Skype+Boingo+Open Source” but only in a WiFi context. Here is how it works. You go and download the software from the website, and update your WiFi router’s software. (Only works for routers that use linux for now). The software update allows you as a consumer to share a certain portion of your bandwidth to a “FoN” network. Essentially what it does is turn every router into a hot spot.

(Clearly installation of the software needs serious geek-quotient, and non-Apple routers, which I don’t have, but if you try, do let me know how you fare.)

On his weblog, Martin Varsavsky writes

…while Jazztel and Ya.com are very local, FON can be very global, like Skype. FON is the P2P of WIFI and I want to find the best way to launch FON around Europe and the rest of the world. What is FON? Very simple. At FON we developed a software client that you download from the net and you install it in your wifi base station….

By sharing the bandwidth for free you become a “Linus” on the network. Your generosity in sharing the bandwidth allows you to get bandwidth when you need it in some other remote location. If you don’t like being a Linus, then you can be a Bill. You can sell your bandwidth to others and make money. The others (also known as the Aliens) will pay to access the FoN network. Small and medium commercial hot spots like cafes and hotels can simply join the network and be “Bills.”

Sounds like a kooky hippe free-love type of scheme? I thought so, but I also take Martin seriously. He explicitly calls it his next start-up. He has started a couple of companies before – Jazz Telecom and Ya.com – and sold them like any good capitalist. This is not an open source project. He is hoping to build a giant business out of this.

Nowadays the largest hotspot networks, T Mobile, Boingo, The Cloud, Orange, Vodafone, have fewer than 20,000 hotspots each. FON just launched and we have had over 1000 downloads in a week. That is 5% of the largest wifi hotspot networks…. more

There are many other questions about this enterprise – security is one, and the whole concept of payments and operational support is another. The FON network only has 100 hotspots right now, and needs to get more traction outside of Europe. (Ejovi Nuwere has signed on as US FoNero.) There is the challenge of supporting literally hundreds of models of WiFi access points. There are legal issues. In US for instance, the incumbents have pretty draconian rules about customers re-selling and sharing their broadband connections. (I think this is a challenge no different from the challenge faced by Skype!) In addition, the software installation is the exact opposite of the Skype experience.

Still, I see the potential of this approach. Imagine if FoN could link up with Google WiFi, Metro Fi, and scores of other WiFi efforts. As one very smart man who pointed out the amazing potential of FoN said, this should have been Google’s WiFi play all along.

FoN FaQ and FoN Blog.

Guru Glenn of WiFiNetworkingNews says …

Fon is not going to work in even the remotest fashion. The amount of hype this guy is generating is hilarious: 1,000 downloads a week = 5% of a big hotspot network. Yeah, right, all 1,000 downloads are going to be active hotspots, and all 1,000 downloads happen in the exciting week of super-hype coverage. First, there is zero advantage for free networks except that this provides centralized authentication (but not security in this release), which raises the bar without adding any improvement. The folks at Less Networks have offered such software for free (although requiring more expertise to install) for over a year.

Techdirt Says:

most users expect WiFi to be free these days, and won’t ever pay for it — especially at the prices FON is talking about. Won’t everyone just sign up as a Linus to avoid paying? Even those who sign up as a Bill will just set up a separate Linus account.

37 Comments

ex Fonero - disguised

it seems, that FON idea obviously sucks in every country they appear. with UMTS , affordable 4 everybody, FON idea is no longer worth anything. There is no development in FON. FON is an appendix of British Telecom and generates numbers only. have a look @ http://maps.francofon.fr and you will be able 2 verify everything told you here. – Also OM does no longer seem 2 be a close friend of Martin. No PR – no ads :)

Anonymous

I agree with Glenn about the hype being created around this idea. I love the concept but a lot of operational issues need to be sorted out. I did a firmware flash today – it took forever and was not a simple process. Downloading the update is one thing but getting a hotspot going is another! Not something I would go to great lengths to do to share my Internet for free! On that note, check out this post about Wibiki – http://www.yeahfi.com

Radiuz

If you think this is an interesting idea, check out http://radiuz.net – a cooperative Wi-Fi network that has been operational for about 2 years now. No installation of router firmware required.

oliver starr

It quite surprises me that Sequoia, Skype, Index and Google would back a company that at the core of it’s business model encourages the users to implicitly violate the terms of service of every single connectivity provider with the possible exception of Speakeasy.

read your terms of service and you’ll see that reselling the service is a violation as is allowing anyone outside of the premises to connect to it.

While this may be a good idea in theory, I have a problem with any company that basically encourages an unlawful act as part of a business model…

Oliver Starr
http://mobilecrunch.com

Martin Varsavsky

There have been so many failed attempt at building local wifi networks that I know we probably sound crazy saying that we will build a global wifi network. But I did invent call back and together with some other callbackeros we brought down the global oligopoly of long distance phone calls in the 90s. Now it´s time to show the global mobile oligopoly that we can do the same, hopefully with your help and have a unified and free global wifi roaming. If anyone has questions do write to me at martin@fon.com or to my fonero buddie Ejovi Nuwere at ejovi@fon.com, he´s in NYC. BTW if you are wondering how we are going to do this here´s the strategy, we will blog the hell out of the idea (check out http://www.technorati.com “fon varsavsky” in all languages and see that working) we will make deal with many community web sites to have us on their home page and we will have all our geolocalizers with them (check out our maps), we will make a deal with one internet giant (google, yahoo, microsoft or ebay/skype), we will make deals with hardware manufacturers like netgear or linksys to sell their routers FON READY, we will make deals with ISP so they sell their services FON ready and get out of their price wars by offering something of tremendous value, free wifi roaming at no cost to them, lastly we will enjoy the WIFI DELUGE of PSP, Nintendo, Digital Cameras, WIFIFONS all coming out in 2006. Watch us evolve at http://www.martinvarsavsky.net or http://www.fon.com blogs in different languages. FON is being built at the right time. Hey, we´ve been up for only a week and you are reading about us!

will

Talk to any VC . . . about a year ago there was a rash of startups offering the same business model/idea running around sand hill. . . Tim Draper even openly ask for business plans on the idea through AlwaysOn. . . to put another nail (?) into the idea, Robert X Cringley also offered up the same scheme in an article. In the end, no one got funded. . . not sure why. . .?

Dinesh

sounds like we need a geek to general population ratio of 10% to make this proposition viable.

Note: These geeks would have to be “computer geeks” not biophsysics or geology or poetry geeks…

Paul Jardine

I don’t think the aim of Fon is to make money from access to WiFi. They need a hook to get cafes and centrally located organisations on board, because those people are not able to see the long game.
So what if people sign-up to Linuses, instead of paying for network access?? You just extended the Fon network! The key here is penetration and you need to get a lot of penetration before it starts to be compelling.
I see it as being useful for kids who want to move around their neighborhoods with their WiFi enabled gadgets….more at http://produktiv.com/pj/ramble.html

Manu

Fon is 100% Vaporware.
Varsavsky will make the same he did with his prior companies.Sell at the highest price possible with the help of the buzz created by his blogofriends.

1. He doesn´t have a blog, he has a FLOG.Only admits comments who benefit him.
2. They ban critical posts in their forums.
3. They wanted to patent the idea/software

Jim Dermitt

Good point, nevermind free. It seems like everything is marketed as free, dirt cheap or high priced because it’s cutting edge. There must be a happy medium. Between cable, cellphones, home phone and other stuff communications just keeps getting more expensive. So what we have are these promises of universal free service and the reality of price bloat. Soon it is going to cost you $200.00 a month just to stay in touch and watch the tube. Look at all the time you will be saving.

TG

If something like this (end-running monopolies) picked up in a widespread way I’d guess the incumbents would pressure router/hardware makers to [try to] block it, Hollywood-style. And without the embrace of HW/SW makers it won’t be able to spread beyond the geekery.

And people are used to WiFi for free? Why is everyone paying for cable and DSL then? Or was that in reference to “in cafes and public spaces”? I’d be happy to get my connection for $20/mo, nevermind free!

Jim Dermitt

Wifi gaming could be great for gadget obsessed zombies. This could be disruptive technology for the computer gaming industry. Free wifi and a huge free wifi gaming zone could blast holes in the market for costly game software and hardware. The incentive is that it is fun and games are high priced. Have fun for free. Some things will cost money because of the overhead costs of financial transactions. The banks want to make money, along with the accountants. Who can blame them?

Jim Dermitt

I kind of think that audio/video will continue to be pumped through wires or fiber. Wifi could kill high priced satellite radio services that are struggling financially.

I’m basing this on:
Talent costs eat profits and wifi technology could trump satellite.

What wifi needs is investment. FON is asking people to invest in their idea. They call it a movement, which gives it a political edge. At the end of the day a political movement needs talent and money to get a message out. Free wifi is going to have costs at some point. These are complex systems that require engineering to run and keep running with any level of dependability. Engineers don’t generally work for nothing. With wifi, engineering trumps politics. I’m for free wifi but I also believe that there are expenses that can’t be avoided. If you want to give away free services, you go right at it. It’s going to cost you something to provide a free service even if it’s only time. Try finding a bunch of engineers that want to work all day and night for free. Good luck.

Glenn Fleishman

Om, you wrote: “glenn from what i remember sputnik and all were selling their own routers and back ends to cafes’ etc. these guys are going to the very extreme or edge of the network, the users.” That was never their whole model, nor that of the other two companies. They had free, downloadable software that turned a PC with a card into a hotspot. This is simpler because it relies on commmodity gear.

All three firms were trying to build a grassroots network momentum. Sputnik’s particularly relied on people having free access to other locations if they were offering free service.

Fon is not going to work in even the remotest fashion. The amount of hype this guy is generating is hilarious: 1,000 downloads a week = 5% of a big hotspot network. Yeah, right, all 1,000 downloads are going to be active hotspots, and all 1,000 downloads happen in the exciting week of super-hype coverage.

First, there is zero advantage for free networks except that this provides centralized authentication (but not security in this release), which raises the bar without adding any improvement. The folks at Less Networks have offered such software for free (although requiring more expertise to install) for over a year.

Second, this is no better than a scattered community wireless networking (rather than a coordinated one) because there’s no effort to build out areas of usage.

Third, most people running Wi-Fi networks will only be able to offer service to a very small radius, if that, as most networks are run in places that require antennas to extend access beyond the building they’re operated in.

Fourth, the folks who want to charge for access will see almost no usage because only networks that have a compelling reason to charge can do so, or that are part of a network that aggregates usage with a single fee and a directory or with raoming across many networks.

Fifth, it’s been tried before and failed during a time when there was much more newness and excitement.

The only way this kind of idea works if that if a manufacturer offers it as a built-in option that can be turned on. The critical mass to make this go is the same critical mass required to make community networking a large-scale success. The same kinds of people who have been involved in community wireless would be the folks who would install this software and gear.

And, by the way, this software violates the terms of service of virtually all major and minor U.S. service providers except Speakeasy.

Mike Masnick

Heh. Figured out which day Om skipped Techdirt. ;)

We wrote about this a few weeks ago:

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20051114/0140219_F.shtml

I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t. None of these attempts to try to build a wider network of WiFi hotspots based on individuals donating their’s seems to get anywhere.

And, honestly, with this kooky Linus/Bill thing: who’s actually going to pay? You sign up as a Linus, you don’t have to pay. However, most users expect WiFi to be free these days, and won’t ever pay for it — especially at the prices FON is talking about. Won’t everyone just sign up as a Linus to avoid paying? Even those who sign up as a Bill will just set up a separate Linus account.

Harrold

Are you guys writing off Sputnik? Do they still have a future? Their web site indicates that they still make their own access points.

Om Malik

brad it is hard to say if its like stoke. stoke is a start-up that is trying to bridge cellphone/wifi. basically hand over the cell calls to a wifi network and that sort of stuff, and these guys are doing something totally different.

Brad

Hmm…sounds much like the guys over at Stoke.com. A little known KP/Sequoia startup that just came out of stealth. Thoughts?

Om Malik

glenn from what i remember sputnik and all were selling their own routers and back ends to cafes’ etc. these guys are going to the very extreme or edge of the network, the users. i am not sure if it will fly or not, but the idea clearly has potential, given the proliferation of the wifi. The stats show that the time for an idea like this is now.

What do you think? clearly, you have more expertise in the wifi space.

Glenn Fleishman

Om, don’t you remember a few years ago when three companies appeared almost at the same time offering an awfully similar model: Sputnik, SOHOWireless, and Joltage? Sputnik switched to aggregation management, SOHOWireless to a particular hardware market, and Joltage shut down and sold its assets.

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