(Disclosure: I am a member of FON's U.S. board of advisors)
Three months after Martin launched FON on his blog, the $21.7 million dollars worth of funding shows tremendous support for FON's vision: a global community of people who share WiFi connections, known as "Foneros" in a tribute to the company's Spanish origins. Here's how it works: By using FON's special router firmware, people with broadband in their homes or offices can share their WiFi signals publicly, safely and reliably. Anybody who becomes a Fonero can then roam onto the Wifi networks of other Foneros for free. Visitors to the network who aren't sharing Wifi elsewhere can get a FON subscription and log on to any FON signal. If you don't roam much and prefer to make money from sharing your signal, you can opt to do that too, but then you'll have to pay when you roam.
What do I like about this? I'm sick and tired of being fleeced to pay for wifi roaming when I travel - or having to poach free signals from random unknown people who for whatever reasons haven't secured their networks. These people may or may not welcome the fact I'm using their signal, but I have no way of knowing, or of asking them. Some cities are getting municipal Wifi, but many others aren't likely to get it any time soon. Meanwhile, we don't have to wait for city councils to get their acts together or for taxpayer money to be raised. Individuals can take matters into their own hands, right now. As FON spreads through urban areas around the world, I'll be able to check out the FON access map to find signals wherever I travel. It's a distributed model, powered by individuals, not by corporations or governments.
Here is how Martin describes the dream he believes is coming true:
The success of FON, like the success of all online communities -- such as eBay, Skype, ICQ, IM -- depends on many people joining. At the very beginning, when there are no obvious advantages to joining FON, it is not so easy to get Foneros, even though the service is free. But as Foneros continue to join, and there are more and more Fonero hotspots, the dream of a unified global broadband wireless signal becomes a reality. The FON movement, as we call it, can achieve what 3G or EVDO has not -- a truly broadband wireless Internet everywhere. 3G/EVDO are great for coverage, but their throughput is pitiful compared to WiFi and they are way too expensive.
Leading the U.S. team is Ejovi Nuwere, who writes on his blog: "What I love about FON is that behind every hotspot is a human. Behind every hotspot is a story." Amen. Ejovi is spearheading efforts by FON to bring wifi to Harlem and disadvantaged communities around the United States.
For those who don't need charity, there's a deal for early-joiners. Unless you are quite tech savvy and have experience flashing firmware onto routers, you need to get a FON-enabled router. FON is subsidizing the first few hundred routers with a special deal: $25 FON-ready routers at the FON shop. Get 'em while they're cheap and join the community.
Last but not least, a few more disclaimers and clarifications. I've been pretty critical of Google lately. Now they are investing in a company whose board I'm on, and from which I may receive some equity. Nonetheless I have no intention of being any less outspoken about Google's recent forays into China's censorship quagmire. Nobody has asked me to moderate my statements and I have no intention of doing so. I would resign from the board before compromising on my beliefs.
A couple other warnings. As I mentioned above, while there is firmware on the FON website that you can download and install on your existing Wifi router, this process is a lot more technical than, say, downloading and setting up Skype. So if you're not familiar with the process of flashing firmware onto your router, I don't recommend trying on your own (I learned this the hard way, proving to the FON team that my "user from hell" reputation is well deserved). People on my non-techie level are better off just getting a ready-to-go FON-enabled router.
Another VERY important thing to keep in mind: be sure to check your internet service provider's user agreement and terms of service before setting up your own FON access point. Many ISP's don't currently allow re-distribution of their signal. The FON team is working hard to get cooperative agreements with more ISP's. But right now the only U.S. ISP that welcomes FON is Speakeasy. I switched from Comcast to Speakeasy on Friday so that I can be a Fonero without potential legal problems for myself. So far I've found Speakeasy's customer service to be excellent and I highly recommend them.