Coping with FON-liness

FON's La Fonera wireless access point & router

Only the FON-ely...FON-liness Of The Long Distance Runner. Yes, I had a whole bank of puns to title this post. They’ll all aptly tragic in telling the tale of a promising piece of web worker infrastructure that has in essence become a network of very lonely and isolated hotspots…

I first came across FON at O’Reilly’s Emerging Telephony 2006 conference, as then company evangelist Ejovi Nuwere outlined a vision of a global wifi network built from the grassroots, owned and operated by its users. Ejovi explained that users installing a FON hotspot would be able to earn revenue from its use or, if they agreed to charge no access fee, use every other FON hotspot at no cost when travelling away from home.

A few months later I recieved a complimentary La Fonera router, becoming the 4089th ‘Fonero’ (currently there are 671’363 users). A few days ago, I switched off my La Fonera, packaging it for an eBay bidder that paid just $17. Now the thing is, none of those 671’362 other Fonero’s hotspots were in places I where I needed connectivity…

FON showed great promise, attacking the fragmented wifi hotspot market and placing pressure on 3G broadband providers by harnessing the energy of the very people that would benefit from its service. The promise of a disruptive user-owned global wifi network was a large part of the company’s marketing, playing on the iconography and language of revolution. With $22m in funding from Google, Skype and venture capitalists, the company seemed poised for success…so what went wrong?

  • FON-liness! FON is not where you need it despite their partnerships with telcos and municipalities, I’ve yet to find a FON location when I needed one. Airports, railway stations, gas stations are well served by national wifi providers. These are the location owners FON needed to align with. I’m not going to need broadband parked up outside some guys house, but I’ll need it waiting for a train to London.
  • Crazy ass distractions at FON labs with the development of Gmail uploaders, URL squeezers and Facebook status tools are an unneccessary waste of resources. 20% time is only valuable when the other 80% is making a real difference to the business. It also indicates to investors that the founders are bored with the core business of the company.
  • Basic hardware has been a constant frustration for Foneros, with the inexpensive La Fonera lacking many features common to Linksys, Belkin and other cheap routers (like more than one port!). Indeed, FON missed a strategic blunder in failing to convince those very manufacturers to add FON-like capabilities to their products out of the box. It can be argued the FON’s firmware is its core asset and proliferating that – agnostic of hardware – was a keystone strategy.

In 2006, I argued that my employers, Orange UK, could partner with FON to create the world’s largest hotzone. My superiors convinced me that if Orange wanted to do that, they could simply upgrade the firmware of all their domestic hotspots – without FON. FON’s potential role as a organisation that could enable roaming between multiple wifi networks was sadly unexplored.

So sadly the promise of FON’s $5 wireless router and it’s community-grown network is almost irrelevant. However, Web workers have many more options available to them. Take my advice and eBay that La Fonera…I’ll be putting that $17 towards an Airport Extreme :)