My friend Martin Varsavsky just announced some amazing news: his new company, FON, has just accepted €18 million in investment from an all-star list of partners and investors: Skype, Google, Sequoia Capital and Index Ventures. This is an astonishing accomplishment for a company that’s three months old and has a decidedly unusual business model: help turn broadband internet users around the world into miniature ISPs, for convenience, profit or social responsibility.
I’m a member of FON’s board of US Advisors and have agreed to advise FON on moving into Africa when the company’s sufficiently mature. Between this relationship and my pre-existing friendship with Martin (all mentioned by way of disclosure), I’m not exactly objective about the topic of FON. But I do think FON’s potentially incredibly important for the developing world and that’s largely why I agreed to get involved with the project.
By joining FON, you agree to share your internet bandwidth with other users either as a “Linus” or a “Bill”. If you’re a Linus (ala Linus Torvalds), you allow your router to be open to other Foneros around the world, which, as FON spreads, means you’ll be increasingly likely to find free wireless access as your travel. If you’re a Bill (ala Bill Gates), you can charge people for accessing your bandwidth and split the revenues with FON. If you’re not a member of FON, you’re an “Alien” – you can gain access to a FON hotspot for significantly less than you’d pay to use TMobile or a similar public WiFi service.
What’s cool about this, for folks in the developed world, is that FON has an excellent chance of growing organically, user by user, rather than through the conventional way Wireless ISPs have tried to grow. I find it easy to believe, based on growth so far, that I may be able to expect to find a FON access point in major cities around the world in the next couple of years.
FON’s far from perfect at this point – the software’s an early beta, and you’re likely better off buying a router from FON preconfigured to use the software (the first 3000 are being sold at a steep discount.) It’s also possible that becoming a Fonero will put you in conflict with your ISP, many of whom have policies prohibiting the reselling of bandwidth. And, if like me you maintain an open hotspot, a FON hotspot will be less open, letting Linuses roam and others pay for access. (I’m likely to run a purely open hotspot as well as a FON hotspot for all those laptop toting black bears that roam through my rural backyard…) David Weinberger, another advisor to the project, has a post detailing some of the hitches in running FON at this point in significantly more detail.
I got involved with FON not so that I could get free WiFi around the world, but because I think FON is thinking through the hard questions neccesary to help provide inexpensive wireless access around the entire world. I’ve looked closely at projects designed to build community wireless networks and have been frustrated that many of these projects seem designed explicitly for nations where bandwidth is cheap. Most let users share their bandwidth, but don’t provide a way to charge other users for using that bandwidth, or to “throttle back” users who clog your pipe downloading films from Limewire. There’s a philosophical bias to many of these projects – a belief that Internet access is an inalienable right and should be free – that I find charming, but totally impractical for the parts of the world I’m most concerned about.
(Update – Steve from Steve’s Gallery points out that there are several packages of software for the Linksys router that FON is using which include bandwidth shaping features. I apologize for not mentioning this before – the projects I’ve been following are still working on bandwidth shaping. I still feel strongly that including payment mechanisms and the ability to bill for shaped bandwidth is a critical part of an appropriate solution for the developing world.)
In Africa, bandwidth isn’t cheap. Entire universities run on less bandwidth than I have coming into my house on a DSL line. Being altruistic and leaving your wireless access point open in Africa is pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to end up with other users abusing the limited bandwidth you have. It’s important that African users have the opportunity to share their bandwith in a way that allows for “bandwidth shaping” – sharing some bandwidth with other users and retaining the rest for your own needs – and billing, so other users can share the cost with you. FON’s current software isn’t optimized for this situation yet, but it’s close, and FON is engaged with the issues in a serious and sustained way. I predict that FON is something I’ll be able to enthusastically pitch to African friends in the very near future.
Most of my African friends are entrepreneurs, either on a micro- or macro- scale. They’ll understand the idea of buying access to a scarce resource (a broadband net connection) and selling access to that for an affordable price faster than most Americans and Europeans will. I suspect FON will make a great deal of sense in many developing nations.
Congratulations to Martin and all the team. I’ve got my router on order so I can create a FON hotspot in the next week, which should be useful for any WiFi enabled cross-country skiers trying to check email as they make their way to the top of the mountain behind my house… :-)