Fon time

Fon has been around for awhile. Which is to say, three months. The Spain-based brainchild of Martin Varsavsky, it's a global community of people who share WiFi connections. Also a business. And it's about to get a lot bigger, because Google, Skype and Sequoia Capital have just invested $21.7 million in it. And if you're a "Linus", a "Bill", or even an "Alien", Martin explains, you get to benefit too. Or that's the idea, anyway.

Here's how Fon works.

At the Fon site, you download software that you install on your FON compatible WiFi routher. Namely, a generic Linksys WRT54G/GS/GL (versions 1x to 4x), which are the ones with Linux inside. You can get one through Fon's store for twenty-five dollars or euros. This is, obviously, below cost.

The software you download is based on open source code developed by Sebastian Gostchall (Brainslayer).

Now you can be a fonero (this being Spanish, I imagine the accent is on the second syllable). Foneros come in three breeds: "Linus", "Bill" and "Alien". A Linus gets to use any Fon hotspot, anywhere, for free. A "Bill" gets a cut of whatever Fon charges for using the network, but does not get to roam free. An alien is a customer, and is neither a Linus or a Bill. The rates will be low, but not free. Affordable, basically. Even if you're in the undeveloped world. According to the Fon FAQ, the system is now in beta, and only Linuses (Lini?) are operative.

Now comes the usual question. (You know it, let's recite together...) What's the business model? The short answer is, do well by doing good.

David Weinberger, a member of the Fon advisory board, explains:

The aim is to provide enough incentives, and make it easy enough technically, that thousands of people will start providing Fon hotspots. Bottom up we can have a global network, usable for free by those who choose to share access for free and for an affordable fee by others.

If you know anything about Martin, you know that, having made a bunch of money as an entrepreneur, his heart and hands are all about making the world better. That's the motivation behind Fon. Fon is especially interested in helping to grow wifi in poorer parts of the world.

But Fon has dreams even beyond this. It can be a platform for innovative community development. There are some really really interesting ideas in the works. Say no more.

Martin Varsavsky explains more, adding details about his new funding and how it will be put to use:

Ours is a people's network. But for FON to succeed we need tremendous magnifying power for our message.

So I sought the ultimate alliances in the industry, and aimed high, very high. And today I have a great announcement to make: FON can now count Google , Skype, Sequoia Capital, and Index Ventures as investors and backers. They’ve joined us to help advance the FON movement, leading a group that has put 18 million Euros into FON and also committed to give us a strategic boost that should help us make this great idea into a great platform for everyone who wants a faster, cheaper and more secure wireless Internet. We’ll invest this money in R&D so we can make it quicker and easier to become a FONERO and so that we can expand the number of things you can do with your FON service. Our goal, after all, isn’t just to share bandwidth. It’s to use the power of people to people networks to create a global wireless network. What makes each of these firms great backers for us is that deep in their DNA is the idea of brand-new business models, tons of innovation and a commitment to making the digital world easier and cheaper. We feel the same way. So while we’re excited about (and responsible for!) their investment, we’re even more pleased to have their support. Also I am pleased to announced today that we have obtained the support of two significant ISPs for FON. In America Speakeasy has said that they welcome FON and in Europe, Glocalnet and FON have signed an agreement so Glocalnet sells its services FON ready and the Swedish foneros will soon be able move around Stockholm and other cities with their WiFi enabled gadgets. FON shares revenues with ISPs making it attractive for them to join the FON movement.

Word is spreading fast. Dig into posts by Om Malik, Gizmodo, Skype, Robert Scoble, Ethan Zuckerman, Wendy Seltzer (I'm somewhat of a techie -- I built my own MythTV instead of buying a TiVo), David Isenberg, Rebecca MacKinnon (I'm sick and tired of being fleeced to pay for wifi roaming when I travel), Alec Saunders (This is a pure long-tail play) and many more.

While Martin reports passing 3,000 foneros, the network isn't what you'd call dense, yet. A search for sites near 94707 (Berkeley) yield twenty hotspots spread from Spokane to La Jolla.

And there are skeptics. Glenn Fleishman perhaps chief among them.

So, any of ya'll foneros yet? Interested? Whaddaya think, so far?


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Too bad their webpages are

Anonymous's picture

Too bad their webpages are broken. All that cash and they can't let me login. Too bad.

Now, if only it weren't a violatoin...

Anonymous's picture

If I understand the architecture correctly, each hotspot needs internet access for this to work. Please correct me if this is a separate AP to AP network. As a long time user of residential cable and DSL, it has always been my interpretation that intentionally or unintentionally sharing the connection is a no-no according to my service contract.

While this is often overlooked in practice, it seems that many U.S. based ISP’s are at odds with FON’s business model. Is this a valid observation?

What about the RIAA and MPAA and my ISP account

Anonymous's picture

So how do I make sure the Linus's, Bill's and Alien's don't get *ME* into trouble? The RIAA and MPAA just want to sue almost everyone nowdays (dead people and peeps without computers etc). I want to do something like this, but am scared $hitle$$...

FON is Fun but some serious thought is needed

Anonymous's picture

I have been intrigued with the idea of creating community networks for a number of years. I dont believe people, or ISPs for that matter, have the incentive to share their Internet for free. FON is trying to change that with their Linus, Bill and Alien Model. I like the idea of sharing a network for a fee because I see immediate utility in that. I dont see utility in sharing my network and gaining access to free hotspots in areas I dont need to connect. THAT is going to be the issue facing FON. People dont need Wi-Fi in residential areas. They need it on the move, in open areas etc. Plus, have you ever tried flashing a Linksys? Perhaps its the non-techie in me, but I found it a long and intricate process, especially getting the damn router to talk to my ISP! I think FON is onto something but refinements need to be made. Check out for a post of Wibiki - suddenly BEST friends with FON!

Re: FON time - Why wait for Bill?

Anonymous's picture

Our free WIFI access blocker can now be used to set up your own (free or otherwise) hotspot service. Check it out here


Anonymous's picture

My opinion about FON? just follow the link and practice some spanish... ;-)

Yeah, I know, it is written in perfect spanish. But hey! FON is a spanish project... (at least by now...)

Best Regards
Miguel Angel Fernández.