If you thought Fon’s recent roaming partnership with AT&T was a first step toward the Spanish Wi-Fi aggregator’s launch in the U.S., then you would have been right. The company announced on Wednesday that it has begun selling its Wi-Fi routers to U.S. consumers.
Called Foneras, the devices work like any other Wi-Fi access point with one exception: they automatically partition off a portion of their Wi-Fi signals to create a shared broadband network accessible to any Fon member at no cost. Fon has been operating in Europe since 2007 and first expanded internationally to Japan in 2011 through a partnership with Softbank. It actually has a presence in the U.S. of a few thousand members (called Foneros), but they’re primarily European expats that have brought their Foneras over the Atlantic.
Starting today, Fon will begin recruiting members within the U.S., selling the latest version of its router for $59 on Amazon.com and on its website. It’s also opened up a U.S. office in New York City’s Soho neighborhood and installed U.S. CEO, Nina Sodhi, who I spoke to ahead of the launch.
According to Sodhi, the U.S. was always a target for Fon, but for the longest time the U.S. had a different view of Wi-Fi than Europe. Europeans embraced a Wi-Fi-first attitude toward connecting mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, while us Yanks seemed content to use our cellular connections, she said (perhaps a vestigial remnant of our old unlimited data plans). That attitude has shifted in recent years, and U.S. companies are starting to embrace the concept of shared Wi-Fi.
The most obvious example of that is Comcast, which recently began opening up all of its customer’s home Wi-Fi routers to other Comcast customers. “It really jumpstarted thinking about community Wi-Fi in the U.S.,” Sodhi said.
Comcast’s shared bandwidth efforts — along with those of outfits like Open Garden, Karma and the Open Technology Institute — aren’t just important to change the mindset around community Wi-Fi, but also as sources of potential partnerships for Fon. While FON has built up a global network of 12 million access points, 80 percent come from carrier partners like Softbank, BT and SFR that install Fon’s software on their residential broadband gateways are sell their own branded version of the Fonera, Sodhi said.
To scale its service in a market like the U.S., where the population is spread out and there are dozens of metropolitan cities, Fon will need to recruit many carriers to its side. It already has a deal with AT&T, but it’s only for international roaming (Fon members will eventually get access to AT&T’s public hotspot network). Foneros can’t access AT&T residential customers’ Wi-Fi networks. Sodhi, however, said Fon is in discussions with multiple carriers and ISPs.