The deal between BT and FON has all the makings of an event to define an epoch. FON has a simple proposal: make a fraction of your Wi-Fi available as a secure public hotspot, and you get unlimited access to everyone else's Wi-Fi who's doing the same thing. Non-members can also access the FON network, at a price; FON takes care of the billing and you get a cut of the proceeds.
Now BT is saying that all its broadband users can become FON members, just by clicking on "OK". The only difference is that BT takes your cut. If you don't like the sound of that, or aren't a BT subscriber, you can always buy a FON router as before.
At first, it seems that nobody loses. BT gets millions of extra hotspots, a great marketing tool and a much more compelling argument for its converged mobile/Wi-Fi strategy. FON gets the exposure, credibility and critical mass it needs to make the step from slightly eccentric, mildly geeky good idea to being seen as a truly exciting and potentially disruptive core technology. And, as for the users, if you like the idea of free worldwide data and voice access in exchange for hosting occasional passing traffic, alongside blanket Wi-Fi coverage of residential areas, then you can see the attraction already.
But, if it works — there are legitimate questions about coverage, reliability and scalability — then there will be some very big losers. Deservedly so. For years, we've pointed out the iniquity of the cartel pricing on mobile data roaming. It's a true outrage that operators charge tens of pounds per megabyte for a service that costs them nothing extra to provide. That injustice is now made plain: the incremental cost of international data access is so low that FON can do deals that effectively give it away — to the benefit of everyone involved.
This is the start of true peer-to-peer public wireless access. That it involves BT, a hard-nosed commercial entity with a history of giving away nothing but hard times to its customers, is substantial proof of the long-term viability of the idea. That FON has backing from Google is another glimpse of what that new future might bring. It fits perfectly with the spirit of the times, the needs of real people and the capability of our technology to unleash comets on dinosaurs. That sky can't fall soon enough.