User-operated Wi-Fi

21 Mar 2006

Modern technology is inherently democratic. With some processing power in their hands, people are doing things that once only professionals or corporations could do. Like recording an album, or choosing a seat on a flight. Or running a wireless network.

The latest user threat to the telecom order is FON, a Spanish startup that aims to straddle the world with user Wi-Fi connections. You sign up with FON and share your home or office Wi-Fi, and get to ride on Wi-Fi connections wherever you find fellow FON users (a.k.a. Foneros).

It's tiered; you can offer a free service (which makes you a 'Linus'), or a paid service (then you're 'Bill').

FON is certainly P2P in spirit, if not quite architecture. An Ovum analyst, Roger Covey, has likened it also to Napster.

For sure, if you're an ISP reading this you're not impressed. Your customers' terms of use do not allow them to resell bandwidth. They're probably not even permitted to share it.


If you're in the recording or movie business, you're frowning at the idea of multiple users sharing media content through the one IP address.

Unwired is skeptical of FON's prospects. There's an obvious disconnect between the location of the users - on the street, in the office or caf‾- and of the connectivity - at people's homes. And as robust as Wi-Fi is, like any wireless network it needs professional attention on occasion. Nonetheless, FON has rounded up $21 million in funding from Google and Skype, among others - companies that have an expressed interest in non-traditional sources of bandwidth.

CEO Martin Varsavsky is determined to go legit. He's in talks about revenue sharing with US ISPs and is offering pre-configured routers for $25.

US tech writer Om Malik has blogged that FON has spawned imitators Wibiki and He also records a response by Wi-Fi expert Glenn Fleishmann, who is dubious about whether a community approach can manage the complexity of running a network.

Unwired suspects the disruptive potential of FON will itself be disrupted by the spread of wireless mesh and the coming of HSDPA and WiMAX.

But FON provides a cautionary tale for the mobile industry. Just because you've been given exclusive rights to spectrum doesn't mean you can't get sideswiped by some other wireless using unlicensed spectrum.

FON also shows that user-operated radio networks are a reality. They just have to prove themselves commercially.

In a similar vein to FON, but with even fewer prospects, is Rabbit Point, a voice over Wi-FI service. Rabbit Point has signed up thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide and is aiming at the roaming user.

Wi-Fi VoIP is a much more problematic service than pure Wi-Fi data. Data is pretty much plug and play, but voice is very demanding, and Rabbit has no ability to guarantee the QoS of its many hotspot partners.

Additionally, users will prefer a single cellular-Wi-Fi handset over the Wi-Fi-only devices currently offered by Rabbit Point.

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