Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Martin Varsavsky and FON

My friend Martin Varsavsky, an absurdly successful serial entrepreneur, has started a new venture – FON. FON is an international company based on the idea of sharing broadband connections through wireless routers. The basic theory – if you’re willing to share your own bandwidth, you can become part of a global network of people also willing to share their connections.

You can choose to share either as “Linus” or a “Bill”. As Linus, you’re agreeing to make your bandwith available to anyone. As a Bill, you’re selling bandwidth for 5 euros for 24 hours, and you split the proceeds with FON, allowing you to become a small-scale wireless entrepeneur. If you’re part of the FON network, you get access to a “Bill” access point for free – it’s only “Aliens” – non-foneros – who pay.

FON works by rewriting the firmware on your wireless router, adding an access layer, a billing layer and, ultimately, bandwidth shaping to the router. Right now, this means it only works on one model of Linksys router – in the future, it’s intended to run on any wireless access point that can be “flashed” with Linux. This is the same technical strategy a lot of smart mesh networking folks are exploring, making routers run Linux, then running mesh protocols on top of the OS.

Speaking at Les Blogs today, Martin tells the audience that he spent €30 million in advertising on his last company, Jazztel, and hasn’t yet spent any money on advertising FON yet. Instead, he’s inviting bloggers to join his board of advisors and asking us to try the product and become evangelists for it. I’ve joined, based on my enthusiasm for the idea – I think FON could potentially be very interesting as a model for setting up micro-ISPs around the world, and if the bandwidth shaping bit of it gets handled well, might be very, very interesting in developing nations. (While I’m planning on setting up an access point, I’m likely to be a lousy fonero as there’s basically no one within 300m of my router at home.) Martin’s got a funny post in Spanish about the other English-language bloggers who’ve joined the board and our “Escala Richter” – i.e., our respective Google rankings.

(Disclosure – Martin is sharing some equity in FON with his board of advisors around the world. My enthusiasm for the project has far more to do with my confidence in Martin and interest in the idea than in the equity, but disclosure demands I acknowledge the financial connection.)

Martin got a very pointed question about his personal blogging from an audience member, suggesting that he a) doesn’t respond to his comments and b) has deleted comments. Martin owned up to both charges, and Dave Sifry, sitting in the audience, came to his defense on one front – that it’s extremely challenging to be a blogging CEO, as it’s basically impossible, he says, to take part in conversations the way like other bloggers do while running a company.

Interesting, though, to see some of the challenges here – if Martin wants to use blogs to promote the product, it looks like some folks are going to ask him to follow a particular, strict blogger ethical code himself…

10 Responses to “Martin Varsavsky and FON”

  1. David Sifry says:

    Ethan, good post. One point I’d like to make is that I wasn’t endorsing or defending the deletion of comments or posts – rather, I was discussing the difficulty and challenges of managing time while being both a CEO of a company and a blogger.

    It isn’t impossible, it just means that it is an extroadinarily difficult thing to do well, and I have a lot of respect for the folks who can do it well…

    Dave

  2. Stuart Mudie says:

    I don’t even agree with the charge that Martin is unresponsive. I blogged about FON when its buzz was still limited to the Spanish-speaking blogosphere (bridge-blogging, anyone?), emailed him with a question, and got a reply in under an hour.

  3. Ethan says:

    Very useful clarification, David – thanks. To be very clear, I certainly wouldn’t characterize your comments as supporting Martin’s decision to remove some comments from his blog. I did think it was useful and important that you made it clear that the role of being a blogging CEO is an unusually challenging one.

  4. Manu says:

    Martin doesn´t have a blog, he has a flog.

    He only accepts positive comments, and has deleted hard criticized posts (the one regarding patenting the idea/sw behing Fon).

    The forum on their corporate website is hardly moderated.You can hardly see any critic.
    He only answers what he liked and interest him.

    That´s not bloggin, that´s cheating the audience.

    That´s the reason there is more and more people (like me) wo liked Fon at the beginning, but left it.

    Martin is a great entrepreneur, but Fon is vaporware.

  5. John Ipsen says:

    Ethan,

    Great article. FON deserves success.

    As I heard the comments from the audience, it was that Martin had deleted a post, not a comment, regarding the “patent pending of FON”. Deleting comments is of course fine, but deleting posts while they are being (negatively) discussed in the Spanish/Catelan blogosphere seems absurd. Instead, if he changes his mind, he should just clarify why.

    BR John N Ipsen

  6. Blah says:

    This is going nowhere fast, unless there’s about to be some harrowing breakthrough in wireless networking technology (and its regulation).

    802.11* doesn’t penetrate two walls in my apartment building, let alone to enough people to make this interesting, and I live in the heart of the kind of teeming metropolis that it would take to even make this plausible.

  7. David Ploin says:

    Martin makes again a big mistake, he’s fanatical about money and triumph and I hate this “ social activism » image .I am not one of his brainless sheep FONERO. He should not spend a single Euro in advertising if what he’s calling a “movement” was honest. Behind the curtain of so-called FON “revolution” is a basic business ambition. After the calamity of Jazztel Martin needs a new image, of philanthropist who spend more money to advertise his donations than the donation itself. If FON is good idea, Martin is the wrong guy for it.

  8. Stefan Weitz says:

    I’m still very confused about how he expects not to have his Bills/Linus’ISP accounts terminated when they are discovered to have violated the Acceptable Use Policy of their ISP (Comcast, in my case). Sure, the argument can be made that it will take COmcast quite a while until they can actually track and terminate accts of those Foneros, but it will happen – and it doesn’t seem to be a viable long term biz model. I know he is working with ISPs to get them to Fon-up, but unless he has some pretty sophisticated rev share models, I don’t know why an ISP would allow this.

    Thoughts? Am I just missing something?

  9. I personally consider that most comments and critics on this post are correct.

    Martin’s idea is good, but he must change his strategy if he wants to success this time.

  10. jooe says:

    about fon: i don’t think that Varsavsky nice idea need to involve the word money (at least, when you are obtaining profit from resources other person is paying for). that’s the reason why i am collaborating in a project named WiFree

    WiFree is open source and is based on a fully non-centralized P2P authentication and reputation model so you can share your bandwitdh limiting freeriders. by using WiFree in your router you can be sure when you open your wireless hotspot!

    there’s a version for linux and the linksys wrt54g family too.

    we propose a simple model: you get internet access from any WiFree hotspot if you also provide WiFree access to other users in a fair way

    you can have a look and get the WiFree from http://www.wifree-project.net

    have a nice wifree!!
    jooe

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