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« Podcast #24: Ultrawideband with WiMedia Alliance President Stephen Wood | Main | Boston Globe Weighs in on Logan Airport Wi-Fi »

September 26, 2006

Fon Is a Wired Network

Header-LogoThe New York Times offers some strange cover of Fon in Wednesday's paper: I don't quite understand this article, which I think fails to emphasize Fon's actual strengths and weaknesses. Fon is designed to be a Wi-Fi extension to fixed wireline networks. The company and its founder have emphasized time and again that if they are successful in their approach, traditional fixed wired broadband operators will sell a much greater number of pipes to consumers and businesses, not fewer. Fon is not mesh, and its pricing (for all but Foneros who agree to share their own active networks) is designed to discourage daily use--at about €2 or $2 per day, the service is intended to cost more when used every day of a month than having one's own wired broadband connection. (Or, in the US, an unmetered 3G hookup.)

When I was first writing secondhand reporting on Fon, when I was writing about the coverage and what Fon founders and enthusiasts were saying, I mistook some of these statements as Fon trying to challenge established hotspot networks. Some press releases and blog posts did and some continue to compare Fon to Boingo Wireless, noting that Fon had some tens of thousands of Foneros, and had exceeded Boingo's hotspot count. But these comparisons weren't apt, because most of Boingo's locations are centers of business, including places like convention centers, hotels, and 1,000,000-sq. ft. airport terminals; Foneros are at homes and smaller businesses, at least in this initial wave. It's very unlikely in the current model to see Fon locations set up in business traveler venues. (I later interviewed founder Martin Varsavsky, and learned much more about Fon's real efforts.)

Esme Vos has insights into the European aspect of this story at

Counting hotspots is always a tricky proposition, too. The Times article cites the 85,000 registered users and the "thousands" of enabled routes. Over at, Mike Puchol has posted an extensive analysis of data he pulled from Fon's mapping system and estimates 3,700 routers are online at any given time worldwide in Fon's network. Fon didn't respond to my request for comment, but Fon's founder responds in the comments that only newer firmware installations have a "phone home" option that shows when a Fon location is active; older firmware would need to be upgraded to appear as active on the map.

More problematic is how the Times article seems to equate public, for-fee hotspots solely with two failed companies, Cometa and Joltage, failing to mention the 12,000 hotspots in the US under management by Wayport, which include several thousand operated by Wayport for AT&T FreedomLink, and about 8,000 in McDonald's that Wayport provides services for the fast-food giant and to which Boingo resells access to AT&T and Nintendo. T-Mobile's 7,000 locations aren't mentioned, nor the thousands of other locations that charge for access or the thousands that charge nothing for access. These locations all compete in some fashion for Fon's mindspace, although the free sites are more "competitive" in that Fon will still charge a price--either dollars or participation.

I have to disagree with an assertion in the article, not credited to any interviewed subject, that 125 routers in the East Village constitute complete coverage. There's no way in which 125 routers of any kind but high-powered, externally mounted Wi-Fi nodes could provide any form of non-spotty coverage over that area. That's distinctly different than providing coverage in the right place.

The article also misses a point that I certainly also misunderstood in my early coverage. Fon is not encouraging its members to violate ISPs terms of service. A Time Warner Road Runner spokesperson trots out and says the usual thing about theft of broadband being like theft of cable--it's entirely regulated in a different manner, and it's a poor comparison--but Fon doesn't want its Foneros to use ISPs that don't allow or encourage sharing. They've been working over the last months to find either ISPs that allow it (like Speakeasy, based in my hometown of Seattle) or that explicitly will partner with Fon to promote it. They're finding more non-US ISPs, which I predicted would be the case, than those here in the good old Homeland.

Sascha Meinrath's criticism of Fon in the Times article is valid from the standpoint that Meinrath is trying to create robust software to bypass the control structures of existing monoliths to create more power in the community, and, in fact, faster overall networks in which the Internet path is not the gating item for bandwidth. Fon is trying to extend the power of wire in opposition, one might say, to mobile networks, which have been extremely expensive outside the US. (That's changing rapidly, as convergence of all kinds have caused home-country and roaming rates to drop everywhere.) Fon's founder, Martin Varsavsky--not mentioned by name in the article--has expressed interest in mesh networks and other means of spreading Fon's coverage, but it's not a focus in these early stages, and it's not the part that they are apparently putting their efforts into.

Finally, there's an odd reference in the Times article to Less Networks, stating that Rich MacKinnon, a normally sane businessman, having 100,000 hotspots in the Less network. Now, that's clearly outside the universe I live in. I have a query into Rich as to what he actually said--the citation in the Times is a paraphrase, not quote--because while Less has good software and is a growing business, this number would indicate that institutionalization is necessary for poor Mr. MacKinnon. Update on Oct. 10: MacKinnon was traveling and replied to my query. They have 150 hotspots, but 100,000 users, and hit 500,000 sessions recently.

[Disclaimer: I contribute regularly to the New York Times, and have written for them in the past about community Wi-Fi, Wayport, and other wireless data related subjects. I have also written for the Economist about aspects of metro-scale Wi-Fi.]


Martin is a visionary and a very successful serial entrepreneur. So the current state of FON is a bit puzzling! I do wish FON a great success, but the way things are today it is giving a bad name to free WiFi movement, lots of premier VCs in future will shy away from this segment. Not good for the industry and not good for consumers.

Few observations from NYT article,

FON, the amazing thing about it is the spin machine. Seriously, great job! Good for them for consistently getting coverage in NY Times, better than coverage with 125 routers! Only 125 takers (!??) even when they were offering 25,000 routers for free!

Now FON is changing strategy by targeting restaurants and coffee shops? On-ramp for new customers? Happy ones? Sure, Bills are excited too! How much money Bills have made so far? How may Bills are there? 1000, 2000, 10000? According to some analysis this number is very very small.

The world is not flat? FON is having success in Europe? How many ISPs have they partnered with? 5? 10? Any major ones?

FON team, Martin, Danny, other investors, FON's advisory board members, all are highly accomplished folks, so I must be missing something here. Any thoughts?

[Editor's note: The 125 routers mentioned in connection with New York were just a subset -- those turned on in the East Village. The overall uptake wasn't explained--gf]

I have been watching this fon thing for a while and the entire episode is hilarious to the core. Honestly I haven't had this much entertainment from any media since Seinfeld. Martin's blog, Fon's board - These are the places you should be going to have a good laugh when you are down and feeling low. This is one of my all time favourites:

Fon seems also in Paris France,
an enormous joke.

After one year of traveling (almost every days)
in hundred of places I managed to get connected to a Fon WiFi hotspot ... once !
In their "Paris map" they show in Paris .... 1500 hotspots.
But where are they ?

A joke.
This company is a big laugh.