In mundanity, Wi-Fi finds a new purpose

What's the first thing you look at when you check into a hotel room? The bed? The view? The minibar?

What's the first thing you look at when you check into a hotel room? The bed? The view? The minibar?

Call it an occupational hazard, but the first thing I look at in a new hotel room is how it provides Internet access -- usually because I've been travelling for a while and need to catch up. Rewind to last weekend, when I found myself in the lovely rural centre of Warrnambool, Victoria and tried to figure out how to get online.

My 3G wireless data card, alas, was out of range, and there were no kind neighbours willing to let me piggyback their Wi-Fi signal. Thankfully, the hotel was serviced using Wi-Fi from Azure Wireless -- a Wi-Fi hotspot provider founded in 2002 with high hopes evinced by AU$50 million in venture capital funding.

The problem: while it was useful, I'm not a long-term customer of Azure: they made a few dollars off of me but I'm not going to be using their network again until I happen to need it.

All the funding in the world can't make people use a service that doesn't resonate for them, which is why Azure's January acquisition by hotel service provider MagiNet is a rather disappointing outcome. The carrier that hoped to unwire Australia using Wi-Fi had only around 70 public hotspots before succumbing to commercial reality; five years after its founding, Azure is little more than a line item on MagiNet's balance sheets.

Equally sad fates have met most Wi-Fi related infrastructure projects, including many well-intentioned metropolitan Wi-Fi rollouts that fizzled as it became clear that "free" and "Wi-Fi" were a commercially difficult pairing. The compromise has been efforts like myKP's ad-supported free Wi-Fi service.

Such a model is interesting, but won't change the world. Nor will Telstra, which still operates the Wi-Fi constellation it got with the 2002 acquisition of SkyNetGlobal but recently eliminated Wi-Fi subscription plans to push large-volume users to its Next-G network.

Competitors like Metromesh are looking a bit pale, with prepaid Wi-Fi access costing AU$150 per GB as opposed to AU$29.95 per GB using 3's further-reaching and more cost-effective HSDPA service.

These days, Wi-Fi just can't get any respect: WiMax has become the darling of municipal rollouts, with countries like Taiwan, Kuwait, and even Ghana using it to provide nationwide Net access. Years after it was hailed as the future of wireless, commercial Wi-Fi -- much like the Segway people transporter and Britney Spears -- seems doomed to a lifetime of ordinariness.

Unless, that is, someone can think of a better way to get it out into the world.

That way just might have been found in the form of FON, a start-up that has convinced 15 major ISPs to load its software onto the broadband routers they provide to customers. FON customers (called "Foneros") agree to let casual visitors use their WLAN access points to buy prepaid credit for use online; in exchange, Foneros get half the net revenues -- and free access via other FON hotspots, on any partner network, anywhere in the world.

Taken to the nth degree, the result is an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network spanning huge tracts of residential real estate that commercial providers just won't -- and can't -- touch. Ever.

The result is the kind of network that Azure, SkyNetGlobal and their competitors were dreaming about years ago -- without the capital investment burden any single Wi-Fi provider will face.

Casual Wi-Fi mesh networks are already operating throughout several Australian cities, but they're run by volunteers providing what can only be described as a sporadic service. FON is backed by big-name ISPs and offers commercial incentives that aren't available through community Wi-Fi efforts.

Despite its promise, FON hasn't yet trickled down to Australia -- and it won't until one of our local ISPs decides to do something truly revolutionary. Who will be first? It had better be someone -- or Wi-Fi will die a quiet death as it slides even further into commercial irrelevance.

Do you love your Wi-Fi enough to share it with the world? Can FON succeed where others have failed? Does Wi-Fi even really matter anymore? Share your thoughts below.