Crowdsourced Wi-Fi internet service provider Fon plans to add a business component to its largely residential hotspot footprint. On Thursday, Fon launched a global beta program, inviting consumer-facing businesses to install a souped-up version of its Fonera router and offer internet access to Fon members and the general public.
The business network will work a bit differently than the residential one, which is essentially a closed system. Fon residential members, called Foneros, install the Fonera router, which then becomes a node in a hotspot network spanning 13 million nodes worldwide. Any other Fonera has unrestricted free access to the network, as do customers who buy access passes. These new business routers, however, will also be open to the general public for limited use depending on the discretion of the business owner.
For instance, a dentist office could chose to give an hour of free internet to anyone in its waiting room, but after that restrict access to all but office staff, Foneros and paid customers, said Itziar Parra, head of Fon’s business Wi-Fi group. Any user accessing a Fon business hotspot for the first time would register for a free account, which could then be used to automatically login to any other Fon business hotspot in the future, Parra said.
The new program seems to split the difference between the two models of business Wi-Fi we see today: wide-open networks businesses offer as an amenity to attract customers and closed networks for internal use. Like the business hotspots being cultivated by Google and Facebook, Fon’s would bring businesses into a larger Wi-Fi network, while still putting some restrictions in place. FON CEO and founder Martin Varsavsky will talk about these evolving notions of business and consumer Wi-Fi at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference on October 21.
The question is whether businesses will want to participate. After all, Wi-Fi is something they can easily offer to customers without the help of any company. To join the beta, companies will have to buy a Fonera router for $69 or €49, but as beta users they will be exempt from future membership fees when the program launches commercially, Parr said. What will those future monthly participation charges will be? Parra couldn’t say. They will largely be decided by Fon’s carrier partners like BT and SoftBank, who offer the Fon service in their home countries, she said.
That said, businesses who join will get the benefit of a managed service. After customers register once, they’ll be able to easily login to any other Fon Business hotspot. Fon’s management tools will let businesses easily set rules for how people access its network, and because every user is registered, Fon will supply basic demographic info to business members on who is accessing their network and analytics on how they’re using it, Parra said. In the future, Fon plans to offer more refined tools, Parra said, for instance the ability to offer higher tiers of service to your most loyal customers.
Businesses in the 28 countries, including the U.S. and much of Europe, can register for the beta and order a new Business Fonera on Fon’s website. Parra said the beta will last at least a few months before the program rolls out commercially.