I'll Show You Mine, if You Show Me Yours

By Amy Mayer

October 19, 2007

BT FON experiments with widespread sharing as a business model.

A new Anglo-Spanish partnership brings together one of the most staid global telcos with a hipster Wi-Fi startup. London-based British Telecom and Madrid-based FON now have a combined presence in the UK as BT FON.

The CEOs of the two companies met at an industry event, says FON USA "chief Fonera" Joanna Rees, and the giant UK provider saw that a secure way to share wireless connectivity would increase the appeal of broadband.

"We're very good for ISPs," says Rees, because the FON system makes broadband customers see more value in the money they're already spending.

FON, of course, is the global Wi-Fi community that operates through individual members sharing a portion of their broadband capacity with any other "Foneros" who get in range of their signals. In the United States, if you want to join the FON community you buy a proprietary router, dubbed La Fonera, (available at FON’s web site or through Dell), and hook it up to your existing system. Then, you can use other FON hotspots wherever you find them and other Foneros who come within reach of your signal can use yours.

Now, for BT Total Broadband subscribers, the special router is obsolete.

"All they have to do is opt in at BT.com. Enter your username and password and we will automatically update the software on their home hub allowing them to proceed," says BT spokesman Michael Jarvis. When a BT fonero is out and about with a laptop, that person will have access to FON's global network, estimated at 190,000 hotspots, according to a press release announcing the new partnership.

The outside access is via a secure channel from the hosting fonero's broadband. (But only one wireless device per broadband subscription can roam at a time.) Foneros who make their wireless available for free to others can similarly use another person's access for free. These people are called "Linuses," after Linux founder Linus Torvalds.

"By choosing to share at home you then have the opportunity to roam for free," Rees says.

But another option exists. So-called "Bills," after Bill Gates, make their wireless access available to others for a fee, which they split with FON. They then have to pay when they roam, too.

US ISP deal pending

BT is not the first major telco to partner with FON. The French company NEUF already works with the Wi-Fi network and Rees says a partnership with Time Warner in the United States exists, but has not yet launched.

"Across the board there's just been inbound interest from around the world," says Rees. And the bigger the ISP, the better the deal for FON.

"It's a lot easier to get to scale when you partner with someone who's huge."

Rees explains the increasing popularity of the "if-I-share-I-get-something-good" strategy as consistent with the widespread use of social networking sites. People are sharing all kinds of content on the Web, she says, and sharing the very means of accessing the Web is a natural outgrowth of that behavior.

Because the concept relies on inexpensive technology and the participation of users, she adds, it's "an opportunity to create a community with existing infrastructure."

For BT, says Jarvis, the innovative approach and existing network made the partnership appealing.

"We saw an opportunity to quickly make a substantial increase in our Wi-Fi footprint and offer our broadband customers a great extra benefit for free," he says. "We want customers to be able to connect anywhere, using any device."

Free global wireless doesn't mean it's handy

While FON supporters, including now BT, promote the concept of a worldwide network of free wireless hotspots, critics argue that the utility of those spots depends on their location.

"You have to either discover that there's a FON network near you or seek it out, and then also have a convenient place from which to use a laptop or make a call or use some Wi-Fi gadget," says Wi-Fi pundit and blogger Glenn Fleishman.

"In some cities, there will be many FON hotspots that are reachable from cafes or other comfortable venues, or the weather and other conditions will be such that making a call while standing up or pacing will work." His implication is clear: much of the time, standing under someone's fire escape while balancing your laptop on one knee doesn't exactly fit the image most people have of wireless connectivity in this day and age.

But, increasingly Wi-Fi users are accessing content on handhelds, which can be used comfortably in less ideal locations. Jarvis says the BT FON partnership creates new lower-cost options for Fusion Wi-Fi phone customers.

"The larger this new network becomes, the more places those customers will have where they can get a cheaper rate call," he says.

And Fleishman says some of FON's early efforts in the United States may help ultimately tip the market here.

"FON doesn't work very well if there are 100,000 Foneros spread evenly across every big city. Rather, you need clusters of high availability in dense areas," he explains. To help prompt that, the company has tried some innovative approaches.

"FON has done a great job trying to seed networks in different cities or for different projects, like its Fonbucks effort, where it sent free La Fonera routers to people within `earshot' of a Starbucks to gain customers," Fleishman says.

A nationwide example in the United Kingdom—if it truly takes off—could appeal to more Americans—both individuals and ISPs.

 Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.

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