Fon makes Brooklyn the poster child for its shared Wi-Fi community in the U.S.

Brooklyn Bridge

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

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