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FON, and why sharing WiFi’s a cool technology for Africa

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… :-)

19 thoughts on “FON, and why sharing WiFi’s a cool technology for Africa”

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  6. Hi, I am really thrilled at the idea of turning the whole planet wireless. I come from a tiny island of the indian ocean on the eastern coast of africa where Broadband and 3G is already active, though bandwidth is relatively slow and yet expensive.I believe our island can be a good test case for future fonerosnetwork as the island is less than 1000 square kilometres in size with a population of 1.3 million (almost 50% possess a cellular phone) and a few ISPs. I just joined the FON community and I am willing to participate in this little big revolution. I read that in the years to come, it will make a lot of sense for Africa to join the Armada. Let´s keep on talking…Kent´annos…
    Fayaaz Lallmahomed from Mauritius

  7. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » FON wifi technology for Africa

  8. 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), especially if you are talking about this system for developing countries. 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!!

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  10. In my grand tradtion of giving you a hard time on your comments…

    I myself am not entirely clear on all this but Ethan I would very much like to discuss this topic with you and two people who have VERY valuable input on this topic. One is Michael Lenczner, whom I have mentioned to you many times in many contexts, who is the founder of Ile Sans Fil, the 100% volunteer run free wifi group in Montreal (over 100 hotspots and 13000 users), who are also the developpers of the FOSS “WiFiDog” package. The other is Steven Mansour who also started his own community wifi program, worked as R&D, support and testing for a WiFi AP manufacturer (alongside yours truly) for 2 years, has played with every AP out there and who states categorically “almost all open-source distros have included bandwidth shaping since 2002″…

    Is there a case of “Starry eyes for Martin” going on? A little “post-Davos inbreeding” perhaps? Everytime I mention WiFiDog to FON supporters I get blankness, giving me the impression they have really very little clue what this all about… I’m not accsuing you of this per-se. But you are implicated. ;)

    Can you imagine the good that could have been done if a bit of the R&D budget for developing the FON platform had been used to further develop WiFiDog?! Martin could have his for-profit product AND provide a free alternative for community groups, and Mike could actually afford his dinner. Oh.. wait.. that’s called competition! Pesky market.

    Here’s a little pushback from the community, from someone trying to do the work *you* inspired him, and many many of us, to do:
    meanwhile, groups like FON seriously overhype their technologies and pull in tens of millions… so sad. maybe FON will grow into its hype (hell, it’s got $20Million) to do so. but when i think what $20 Million would “buy” — well, it’s sorta sad really.”

    Sorry to be a pest again. ;)

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  12. The FON’s vision is one that I share. I am an African, living in South Africa. Bandwidth costs in South Africa are some of the highest in the world. The country is still under one telecome monopoly. I have recently setup a couple of hotspots using a local billing system, skyrove. They allow me to set price and take an increasing share of revenue as my revenues increase. The model is working for me. Is the FON planning on doing the same? Check out http://www.yeahfi.com and http://www.skyrove.com to get more info on the local guys.

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  14. hi,can i get wireless while in South Africa.I live in Johannesburg,I am thinking of getting FON to be able to get WIFI,and then internet even though its slow etc.?

  15. Sara – you’ll be able to get dialup access in South Africa, and possibly faster access, though it can be quite expensive. It’s certainly not a problem to use Wifi to share the connection around your home – it takes a little work to do this with a modem, but it’s not impossible – but I can’t tell you whether sharing or reselling the connection via Fon would be legal under South Africa law. I’ll contact some friends and see if anyone has a legal ruling on wifi sharing in SA.

  16. i will b verry glad if we have fon in Ghana. i belong to the linus accra group. we have been looking foward for this day.

  17. actually have a unit here now and some modified wireless routers.
    works fine but trying to get it setup as a mesh network gateway so it can spread. open-mesh networking…
    Primarily for expanding access to social networking sites 1st then later to the whole internet.
    Like the Minneapolis local city network.
    Think it now has access to the internet but it initially only served local information and services to government services.

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