My friend David “El Oso” Sasaki raises some issues about FON’s marketing strategy in a recent blog post. He’s concerned that the buzz FON’s recent announcement of investment has received in the blogosphere may amount to “a personalized press release for the company”. David mentions that Rebecca and I both disclosed our involvement with FON in our posts, but worries that others haven’t disclosed their involvement.
David’s concern is a valid one – if it’s not clear whether someone’s supporting something out of enthusiasm or out of fiscal interest, blogs become a much less useful – and more fraught – medium of discussion. With that in mind, I’ve added a formal disclosure policy to my blog – it’s accessible from each page of the blog as well. (I modeled my policy on the exemplary policy David Weinberger has had on his site for the past 18 months.) If there’s insufficient information in there, let me know and we can talk about whether I’m willing to add the information you’re interested in. There are limits to what I can disclose, in some cases – I’m under confidentiality agreements regarding some of my work – but I’ll work to disclose potential conflicts of interest as well as I can. I want to mention, though, that I’ve disclosed my relationship with FON in my prior two posts on the topic.
David’s concerns about FON have already inspired conversation within the US Advisors mailing list and advisors have already been asked to disclose their involvement in posting about FON. I suspect a formal policy like the one David is asking for will be in place soon.
A note on how FON is working with bloggers: if FON were using bloggers just to generate buzz about the product, I’d be skeptical and wouldn’t be involved. What’s been interesting is that Martin’s used his team of advisors to an extent that I’ve literally never seen a board of advisors used. I generally get 5-10 emails a day from the FON team, most of them inviting my input into decisionmaking. While I’ve not responded to all of them, I’ve responded to some, and, as a result, tend to feel more engaged with FON than I do with some of the other projects that I advise. I realize that what’s visible to the outside world is enthusiastic blogging by some FON advisors – what’s less visible is the fact that these advisors have been putting a good deal of time into helping shape an interesting project.
FON has also taken some criticism from advocates of Community Wireless Networking solutions, including my friend Michael Lenczner, who runs a hugely successful wireless project in Montreal. Michael is concerned that FON hasn’t sufficiently involved people from the Community Wireless movement in the project and therefore may be rebuilding the wheel. I’ve made some efforts at introducing one of the community wireless leaders he mentions in his post to the FON community and will make more efforts in the future – Michael’s absolutely right that FON needs to learn from the successes and failures CWN projects have had in the past. FON also made a major misstep in not acknowledging more clearly the amount of work that’s already been done by community wireless project on software and models – I’ll also do my best to give that feedback to the community.
My friend and co-worker Boris Anthony echoes Michael’s concerns and wonders whether FON is getting more attention from folks like me because of the involvement of seasoned entrepreneurs and major investors. The answer, simply put, is “yes”. I’ve been involved with community wireless efforts through my work with Open Society Institute for two years now. My interest in FON has to do with a desire to see community wireless projects spread much more widely than the small, tech-savvy cities (Montreal, Berlin, Copenhagen, Champaign-Urbana) where they’re based now and spread much more widely. In my opinion, that requires two things – a revenue model and marketing dollars. FON’s just raised money that can be used to spread the idea of sharing WiFi far and wide and is working hard on a model that makes participating in FON fiscally compelling, something I feel has been absent from most of the dialog around community networks.
(By the way, my sense that Community Wireless Network projects need to think about fiscal models more seriously is longstanding – Tomas Krag from wire.less.dk and I wrote a talk proposal for ETech 2005 about making community networking efforts more appropriate for the developing world. Much of the focus was on adding fiscal models to wireless sharing that would allow users in Africa to share bandwidth while making money. Regrettably, ETech didn’t accept the proposal and we never wrote the paper we’d intended to.)
Boris also points out – as does Steve of Steve’s Gallery – that I made a factual misrepresentation in my previous post on FON, noting that bandwidth shaping has been an option in most Wifi sharing software released for the Linksys WRT54g. This was an error on my part. Due to involvement with a mesh wireless project where bandwidth shaping had not yet been implemented, I was unaware that several distros for the Linksys included this feature.
I don’t see shared wireless access as a zero sum game – I think it’s important to try different approaches to bring connectivity to the developing world. I got involved with efforts to bring connectivity to sub-Saharan Africa in late 1999, and between then and my departure from Geekcorps in 2004, I saw a lot of approaches to African connectivity attempted. In the end, the approaches that worked best were those attached to solid business models, not those supported by foundation support. That experience – as well as the experience of watching my grant-supported NGO go under – is part of what makes me so enthusiastic about the potential for FON in Africa. I certainly don’t think FON is the only solution, and I’ll continue to champion other solutions that I think are success stories, including SchoolNet Namibia’s projects. Mmy previous post was not intended to be a comprehensive overview of community wireless projects in Africa or elsewhere – I apologize that I slighted the several excellent efforts already underway in this space.