Free Wi-Fi: Where's the Fon in that?

Free Wi-Fi: Where's the Fon in that?

Summary: There's no such thing as a free lunch, so the old adage goes -- but is there such a thing as free Wi-Fi? Wi-Fi sharing company Fon thinks it has the answer, as does Google-backed start-up Meraki.


There's no such thing as a free lunch, so the old adage goes -- but is there such a thing as free Wi-Fi?

A Google-backed start-up by the name of Meraki is out to prove there is. The US company has this week got the thumbs up from the mayor of San Francisco to create a free Wi-Fi network across the city, using mesh networking -- the take-a-bit-and-pass-it-on model -- and in so doing reinvigorated the spectre of free municipal Wi-Fi.

The Meraki system is reminiscent of Fon, the global Wi-Fi sharing network. Not technologically reminiscent, more ideologically reminiscent: Meraki encourages users to share their Wi-Fi by creating a mesh network -- passing the signal from one node to another to create a network -- using its Meraki Mini mesh router.

Fon has a slightly different take. Like Meraki, it sells routers to encourage users to pass on their Wi-Fi, but there's no mesh involved. Fon users -- so-called Foneros -- offer to make their Wi-Fi available to others. Passers-by in need of a hotspot can buy some time on Foneros' connections much like they would in a Starbucks or an airport, albeit a bit cheaper. The Fonero and Fon itself then get to split the revenue between them.

Fon, to me, is the more interesting of the two propositions. However, while the system may be appealing financially and ideologically, there does seem to be one big question in the business model: most Foneros will be sharing their home network and as such will operate in residential areas. As a result, I'd expect few itinerant users. If Foneros primary motivation for signing up to Fon is making cash, they may find themselves disappointed.

However, it's not just individual users spreading the word (and the connection), SMBs too are apparently getting in on the action, a Fon user tells me. If the balance swings from residences to offices, the cash potential ups as the geographical profile becomes more favourable attracting passing trade.

However, it's not just the lazy lure of cash that gets users on board. By becoming a Fonero, users get free access to the Wi-Fi of any other Fonero around the world -- essentially a worldwide free roaming agreement. And who would such an arrangement appeal to? Most likely the businesspeople and SMBs that Fon needs to make the cash side of its business worthwhile.

But Fon is not sticking to grassroots do-gooders and word of mouth marketing to get subscriber numbers up: it's also thrown in its lot with BT, the UK's incumbent broadband provider, allowing the telco's users to become Foneros via BT's Home Hub, or broadband gateway.

The union potentially gives Fon a boost in subscriber numbers -- BT has around four million broadband customers -- making the free roaming possibility extra tasty: the more hotspots there are available, the greater chance of finding a bit of free Wi-Fi on your travels. But in gaining those four million, Fon will of course have to bow a little to its new master.

Martin Varsavsky, Fon's founder, said of Meraki in his blog: "Meraki is imitating the Fon model with a twist and that is adding a repeater or meshing function that came out of MIT for its Wi-Fi stations. At Fon we also have had a meshing function for a while but we see difficulty in extending meshing in developed countries (meshing is good where availability of connections is low). Meshing is opposed by our partners, the telcos, because one person buys a connection and many use it for free."

So the promise of free Wi-Fi still exists chez Fon, but only on the telcos' terms. What a surprise.

What's your take on Fon's model? Would you be willing to share your Wi-Fi with others? Would you be worried about the security implications? And how do you expect the ISPs would react? Let us know by posting a comment below

Topics: Broadband, Networking, NBN, Wi-Fi

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  • Meraki is for reaching out

    I think meraki is better because they are trying to reach out to all that still does not have Internet because it is expensive (3rd world countries) or there is no Internet in the area.

    Also, having a mesh save you from the requirements to have many Internet gateway.

    With just one ADSL gateway, you can carpet a few block of your neighborhood

  • sharing is good

    I like the idea, and am all for it but i was under the impression that ISP's currently prohibit you from sharing your connection with others. Also i believe the wider area freenet networks that operate around the place are also prohibited from providing internet access (this time by communication regulation), so i would have thought this would have implications for wifi mesh network.

    Security would not worry me but having someone doing naughty things using my IP address would. There is nothing less cool than having your door kicked in by police at 6 in the morning and all your hardware siezed!!!
  • Feel good factor

    There's a social digital divide not only with the 3rd world countries, but also locally, with the have and have-nots, in this case internet access. Free wifi won't replace a dedicated connection, if you really need the bandwidth. Most people don't "need" internet, they can access it at work (during lunch), but it's for those occasions, at night or in the weekend, when you want to pay your bills in the comfort of your home, order a cheap flight, send a couple of emails... There are cheap plans available which offer you a slow connection and 500Mb, which may be enough, but it's again an additional $20-$30 every month. I think with the mortgage/credit crunch, internet is one of the first things people scrap of their list of luxuries.

    Now, I pay for my internet connection, and every month I have plenty of MB's (or rather GB's) left. I could opt for a cheaper plan, saving me an additional $10 each month, or I could open up my connection to the neighbors. It's not an unlimited plan though, so for telcos it shouldn't make a difference. When I (and my neighbors) consumed my data before the end of the month, I'm stuck myself, and I have to upgrade my plan or wait it out. Additionally I can't make money out of it anyway, or else I would need a carrier license to do so... (Meraki does offer a version where you can handle paid connections).

    I've been using a Meraki since middle of October, and up to now I shared 2.4GB, or 800MB per month. Usage data and user management is available through an online Meraki dashboard. I open my connection for browsing only, at 512kb/s only, which is plenty for browsing. Sharing feels good too, but when I see users abusing my connection by downloading 100s of MBs over a short period, I block them. Sorry about that, but I'm still paying. Meraki also allows me to divide my own closed home network from the open, meshed network, so it's not the same as just opening up your access point, you have some sort of control.

    Users should be careful though, and be aware what they are connecting to. Not only logins, online payments and internet banking should be handled over a SSL (secured) connection, but same applies for email, because it is an open connection, open to anyone sniffing all packets traveling through the air. Before you can browse you are redirected to a splash page, explaining what you are connected to. So if you don't feel comfortable browsing through a Meraki monitored network and have privacy concerns, you can disconnect.

    There are a lot of wireless access point around the block, some (unintentionally) open. If more people would install a Meraki (and you don't even need an internet connection, you could enlarge the mesh network), more people could get online, in more places (like sitting in a park, or next to the water).
  • Software based solution: Whisher

    Meraki and Fon are both hardware based solutions.
    I have been using Whisher for a few months now. Whisher allows you to do the same as FON (share your wifi connection) but it is a software based solution. You only need to install the software on your PC and register your WiFi and it is done.
    As it has not cost, it could spreak much fasater than any hardware based solution. Most users have no idea what a router is and have no incentive in buying a new one. Advanced users want a high end router, which is not the case with Fon's router (I don't know Meraki's very well).
    I hope free WiFi will do it as I am tired of paying 50 EUR/month for my data plan...
  • Free wi fi

    I think its funny that the so called first world nation states and their citizens like to condescendingly talk about helping developing nations through some basically 'corporate' plan.There are other alternatives, one only has to look towards estonia, where " Veljo Haamer, a wireless innovator who has played a big role is Estonia's almost 1,100 free wireless hotspots" quoted from,_Estonians_get_free_WiFi
    With all the new technologies emerging isnt it important to keep the technology in the hands of the people and not held back for the monetary gain of the few.