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

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