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Coping with FON-liness

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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 :)

19 Responses to “Coping with FON-liness”

  1. fonoverser

    “play tricks with words or claim to offer features which only exist under absurd circumstances or after bizzarre interpretation of otherwise common words. I have not served as moderator of their discussion board for many months now.”, so by these words AustinTx declares as: “positive, truthful, thoughtful and independant of fanatacism.”

    he doesn´t seem to realize his own absurdity…

  2. If you lived in London you would find Fon everywhere??! who do you think you are kidding? I have yet to find one single Fon or Btfon hotspot in london! i’ve given up as well, and my fonera is packed away in a drawer, it was a waste of energy. Most of my friends have turned off theirs as well. If after 3 years they have less than one hundred thousand fon active hotspots, as their maps say, things are going reeeeally bad.

    It is a pity, i was a huge Fon fan at the beginning, but things have changed lots and you are right, it is ridiculous the amount of non fon related things that the labs and CEO are doing, instead of worrying about how to improve services, coverage, fonera functionality, etc. Surely fon shareholders wont be too happy!

  3. I’ve made 4,248 posts on as of this moment, mostly positive, truthful, thoughtful and independant of fanatacism.

    As for, it is a -free- solution to sharing -free- wifi safely which has no dependance on router model (or proprietary firmwere therin). Unlike Fon, they do not play tricks with words or claim to offer features which only exist under absurd circumstances or after bizzarre interpretation of otherwise common words. I have not served as moderator of their discussion board for many months now.

    It is Fon which is antagonistic to Whisher, because Whisher was founded by some talented guys who severed their partnerships with Martin Varsavsky before Fon even got started. In retaliation, Martin helped other friends of his to launch a Whisher clone!

    I don’t know who this “fonoverser” is, but he is advised to stick to facts, and abandon his trolling tactics and personal attacks.

  4. fonoverser

    regarding AustinTX: this guy has posted about 5.000 mostly negative postings in english fonboard. he seems to need help, really abandoned in the “lonelyness of a long distance poster”….. so, it would be better not to listen any longer to all his anti-FON tirades, cause he is a moderator of an antagonistic start-up, called whisher, and strongly seems to be influencened by these guys. whisher has made a turn-around of 180 degrees, concerning its business model… so it should be clear what the real motivations are…. and where the real motives may be found. its promising, that this guy disappears from FON…. and do no longer waste his energy….

  5. fonoverser

    @Jason, you are telling nonsense to the public. This FON thing started sending routers in II/2006. so tell us, how can you receive one, before starting sending out? *LOL*

  6. While mine has been deactivated for a while (I believe I actually received it in 2004 or 2005) I never had a single person login to it. I’ve since re purposed the router (back then they were sending out the WRT54GS routers with their own build loaded) and loaded up Tomato on it. Unfortunately it won’t keep up with a 15Mb down 2Mb up connection. So off to eBay it goes.

    If you look at the map of locations and look at San Francisco then you’ll see lots of penetration. Hotspots everywhere.

    I think if they want to stick around they need to keep the free routers sent to those that have a spot where people will use it and not all the citys out in the middle of tim buck two.

  7. 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.

  8. Imran Ali

    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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. Imran Ali

    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.

  13. 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

    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.