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Get Your Free Wi-Fi Access: Reasons to Fawn Over FON

It was only a matter of time before businesses started to monetize what amounts to a state of near chaos in wireless connectivity. Time Warner is the latest to buy into the FON model.

Networking Notes

I think it's pretty clear, almost a decade into the home broadband era, that people really like to share. Sometimes they share music and movies, sometimes they share connectivity, and sometimes they just share opinions nobody cares to pay them for. And good for all of us. It's nice to share.

Bandwidth itself, of course, is a pretty popular object of peoples' more generous impulses. Networking geeks with friends behind restrictive corporate firewalls cough up bandwidth in the form of quietly proffered ssh proxies, and newly minted WLAN operators leave their access points open for passers by.

Granted, sometimes that wide-open hotspot is more a product of ignorance than altruism, but there are plenty of people who know exactly what they're doing when they leave the front door of their wireless network open.

Get a group of sharers together, and interesting things begin to happen, as we saw at the beginning of the Wi-Fi era. Efforts like Portland, OR's Personal Telco Project sprang up to facilitate wireless connectivity sharing. Some participants in projects like that liked sharing, and others realized that, in the absence of a municipal wireless cloud, the only way they'd have to become their own rainmakers if they wanted to go wireless anywhere besides home.

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Municipal Wi-Fi is, of course, a coming thing. Several large cities have begun to roll out their own WLANs, with a predictable amount of squabbling over who gets the contracts. And even as 802.11-based deployments pick up speed, there's WiMAX to consider, which promises a wireless cloud with much less of 802.11's spottiness, even if that's a few years off.

But Muni Wi-Fi and WiMAX aren't really here yet. How can we tell? An appalling number of bloggers continue to spend their precious blogging time crowing about how they've found some new hotspot to blog from, for one. And for two, we still hear stories about lost souls getting picked up by the local cops for mooching wireless connections from the comfort of their pickup trucks. (Note to wireless piggybackers: Any coffee shop owner willing to call her place of business "Brewed Awakenings" cannot at all be counted on to have anything like a useful sense of humor.)

It was only a matter of time before businesses started trying to monetize what amounts to a state of near-total chaos in wireless connectivity. We're all familiar with paid hotspots, for instance. But that's a model no one's eager to sustain for long: There are costs associated with management and maintenance, for instance. Unless, that is, a company were to hand off management and maintenance to its customers.

That's the FON model:

Sell (or give away) a special wireless router anyone can connect to a home broadband connection.

The FON router provides a private network segment for the hosting user and a public wireless access point (WAP) for passers by. Prospective FON users (aka "Foneros") can either pay $39.95 for the FON "social router," keep an eye on the FON blog for the occasional $5 offer, or even flash an existing router's firmware, converting it into a social router at no cost. The new fonero can decide how much bandwidth to parcel out to passers by, and whether to be a "Linus" or a "Bill."

"Linuses" share their connection and, in turn, can share any other FON user's connection for free. "Bills" share their connection and take 50 percent of their WAP's take from paying customers. Paying customers? FON calls those "Aliens," and they're people who don't share a wireless connection at all, preferring instead to cough up $3 a day for access to FON WAPs.

Ordinary folks who are happy to just get free Wi-Fi away from home will typically assume a Linus role. Small businesses (coffee shops that are not, for instance, named "Brewed Awakenings," or other high-traffic spots) might prefer to take a skim of the proceeds from all their Alien customers.

How well's FON doing? Not the easiest thing to judge. FON claims 60,000 member hotspots around the world. It's telling that Google and Skype have both invested in it, as well as a few major venture capital firms. And it's also telling that on Monday FON announced a new partnership with Time Warner Cable that legitimizes wireless connection sharing among Time Warner customers using FON social routers.

Time Warner (along with many other ISPs) has traditionally been hostile to the idea of its users sharing their Internet connections with just anybody. As the distinguished Senator from Alaska noted, Time Warner's not a trucking company, and its pipes get full. Why deal with the expense of providing enough bandwidth overhead for J. Random Passerby to enjoy a little for free thanks to the altruistic whims of treasonous customers, right?

Some ISPs have already answered that question: There's a chance to make a few bucks. Seattle-based, national ISP Speakeasy, for instance, has offered a service it calls "Netshare," which allows its customers to earn a credit on their monthly bill by setting up a hotspot for their neighbors. Speakeasy handles the billing, the customer hosting the access point gets a take, and people who really do not want to deal with a DSL technician crawling around their house get a service that just works. Provided, that is, the user they're buying bandwidth from isn't an absolutely demonic file sharer.

And it appears Time Warner has figured that out, too. While the partnership is certainly good news for Time Warner customers among those 60,000 Foneros, who might have faced getting their connections yanked for terms of service violations, it's pretty good news for Time Warner, too: It's getting a cut of the Alien fees.

It's tempting to think that with looming muni wi-fi and WiMAX, a model like this is doomed. But muni wi-fi is coming slowly, and WiMAX, while promising, is going to require new hardware. People spending their money on lattes down at the local coffee shop might not be eager to upgrade their hardware the second large-scale WiMAX deployments come to town. In some cases, that's going to mean a whole new laptop.

If you're curious about FON, and wonder if there are enough users in your area (or areas you might want to visit) to make it worth your while, check out the FON dynamic map page and search your ZIP code. Maybe you'll get to start making your neighbors call you "Bill."

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