The barriers between consumers and ever-present Wi-Fi are breaking down, and quickly. A hotspot or wireless network is almost constantly within easy reach: Coffee shops, restaurants, airports, buses, trains, parks, theaters, department stores, stadiums, airplanes.
Wi-Fi is quickly becoming a democratized economy. Now that the Internet and even Facebook are considered a human right by many, it makes sense to assume the means by which we get these things should become more and more accessible.
Still, the Wi-Fi desert is a real concern, and there are plenty of issues with current providers that keep people Wi-Fi-less – so if it is going to become a democratized tool of the masses, the system by which we procure it has to evolve. That’s the idea behind Fon.
“It’s a way for people to share their networks in a way that is comfortable and safe for them.”
Fon was founded in 2006 and has been busy propagating its “give a little, get a lot” business model since then, mainly in Europe. The sharing economy will tap blood from a stone, and Fon is applying the concept to Wi-Fi. Fon piggybacks on its users’ existing Wi-Fi router, using the two signals; a private one for the router owner and another for Fon network users. The owner of the original network never suffers slow bandwidth or any other overloaded network issues because they are operating on their own signal, keeping them free from whatever the other Fon users are doing. Users of these “public” networks sign in through a webpage, enter their created Fon credentials, authenticate, and connect – much like when you’re at the airport or Starbucks.
Because of the way Fon is setup, it’s technically the largest Wi-Fi network in the world, with 12 million hotspots worldwide. Of course, most of them are abroad, most notably in Europe and Asia. In the U.K., Fon is partnered with British Telecom, which builds the Fon platform into all of its routers – giving the company a huge advantage. In fact, London is representative of how Fon can ideally work, ably covering block after block of the city. “It’s near ubiquitious in London,” Fon CEO Nina Sodhi says.
Sodhi says that founder Martin Varsavsky had the idea while in another European city: Paris. “He was sitting at a Paris cafe around 2 p.m. in the afternoon, looking to get online,” Sodhi says. “What he saw was a long list of Wi-Fi signals that were all locked. Being that it was a Tuesday in the afternoon, he thought, most people aren’t even home right now and while they should have their Wi-Fi locked, if I could just find a way to use just a little bit of their Wi-Fi …”
“He wanted to create a way for people to share their networks in a way that was comfortable and safe for them.”
And thus, Fon was born. Now, the platform is making its U.S. entrance, starting in New York, where it already has some members (mostly early adopters and expats). The introduction includes the network as well as its own branded router, the Fonera.
The discreet, $59 router (which is 802.11n compatible) also supports Facebook login, so you can connect with your account. This doesn’t just speed sign-in, it simplifies sharing your Wi-Fi network with friends … as in your capital “F” Facebook Friends. When friends and family – anyone you’re connected to on Facebook – comes over and wants to connect, they are immediately able to sign on. Why the easy sharing? So that you can throw away those millions of sticky notes full of 20 character passwords provider’s so often assign you. Fon feels that if you’re close enough to call someone a friend, they can be trusted when in your home to use your Wi-Fi. The only possible drawback here is parents who want to kick their kids off the Internet at bedtime and be Facebook friends with them. But we’ll let the child-rearing among us figure that one out.
Of course as Fon makes its stateside push, it faces a significant challenge in competing with existing networks, many of which are looped into cable TV and home phone (the remaining, what, seven?) plans. To that, Fon says the Fonera can work as a Wi-Fi booster. Areas experiencing spotty coverage can be fixed by placing the router there and configuring it to help out your network, while also helping spread Fon’s reach with that second, “public” signal.
Fon has already sold more than 4 million Foneras in the last three years before bringing the device, and its concept, to the United States market. “I would say the U.S. is a little behind Europe and Asia in terms of Wi-Fi. If you go to Europe, the standard mode of operation is you use your cell phone and look for Wi-Fi,” says Sodhi.
U.S. users rely on data more often, but that of course comes at a personal financial cost. And there’s also the previously mentioned barren pockets of the country where wireless networks are absent. “We’re at the point in the U.S. where users are finding a very new and unique need for Wi-Fi.” Eventually – perhaps very soon – new methods will be tested. And Fon wants to be one of them.