FONing a WiFi Revolution

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 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 – 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.