Fon calls itself a movement. It has a manifesto and uses words like solidarity and revolution. The design of Fon's Web site is reminiscent of Soviet propaganda art. Fon comes complete with its own lingo, with participants known as Foneros, Bills, Linuses and Aliens.
Yet behind the brotherly-love imagery are plans for making money, as well as a few question marks.
Fon, an organization launched in Europe in early November, aims to be a global community of people sharing and using each other's Wi-Fi hotspots. "We create a global Wi-Fi cloud out of what used to be disparate hotspots," said Martin Varsavsky, the organization's founder. "We take this Wi-Fi mess and turn it into a Wi-Fi network."
Varsavsky has started several companies in his time including Jazz Telecom, the Spanish telecommunications operator, and Ya.com, Spain's Internet content company now owned by T-Online International. Beyond his startups, Varsavsky is also active in a number of organizations involved with global social issues, and it is perhaps this side of him that planted the seed for the idea behind Fon.
"Foneros," as those who participate are called, download software onto their Wi-Fi access points or buy an access point with the software from Fon or an ISP. Foneros come in two shades. Those who want to make money are known as Bills, named, of course, after Bill Gates. Those who just want to share their hotspots and use other Foneros' hotspots for free are know as Linuses, after Linus Torvalds, developer of the open-source Linux kernel.
"The Wi-Fi revolution needs both the socialists (the Linuses) and the 'free marketeers' (the Bills)," Varsavsky wrote in his blog.
There's also a third category of people involved, called Aliens. Aliens don't contribute to the network but they pay Foneros to use their hotspots.
An Alien might, for example, sit at a cafe with a laptop and find a Fon hotspot operated by a Fonero. The software on the access point will ask the Alien to pay to use the hotspot. Once a month the Fonero will receive a check or payment to their account from Fon for the Aliens' usage.
Bills cannot use other Fon hotspots unless they pay, like an Alien. Linuses, on the other hand, offer use of their hotspots to other Linuses for free, and in exchange they're allowed to use any Fon hotspot.
Fon is just getting started, with just 100 hotspots around the globe, and the ability to pay or get paid isn't yet available. Following its debut in Europe, Fon plans its official U.S. launch in January, and Varsavsky hopes to launch the pay service soon after. He plans to offer the service at cheaper rates than other commercial hotspot operators. Aliens will pay Euro 1 (AU$1.6) for 30 minutes, Euro 5 for 24 hours or Euro 40 for one month.
For now, the access point software works with certain access point models sold by Cisco Systems' Linksys division, but Fon is working on making the software available on more models and on devices made by other vendors, Varsavsky said. The software authenticates users against a database operated by Fon and also registers the hotspot so that it will show up on a map available on Fon's Web site.
Varsavsky was vague about the security mechanisms included in the access point software but said that security experts, including Ejovi Nuwere, the chief technology officer at SecurityLab Technologies., have worked on the security component. "About a third of the people in the world don't even know how to put passwords in Wi-Fi, so I think we're improving the state of security by launching this," Varsavsky said.
In addition to selling the access point software and access points, Fon hopes to make partnerships with ISPs around the globe to offer the service. "ISPs love this concept because they can give an extra service that doesn't cost them anything," Varsavsky said. ISPs competing aggressively on price can offer their customers Wi-Fi access points with Fon software installed, marketing a worldwide Wi-Fi roaming service. ISPs that do this will receive a cut of the price that Aliens pay to use the network.
That component may be key to Fon's potential, because some ISPs forbid customers to share their broadband connections, especially if customers try to resell them. In 2002, Time Warner Cable in New York City made headlines for cutting off customers that it said were sharing their broadband connections with neighbors via Wi-Fi.
"Some ISPs are nasty to customers and say they shouldn't share their Wi-Fi, but we believe most will change their minds when they see the way we work," Varsavsky said.
Fon has formed a deal with Glocalnet AB, an ISP in Sweden, and is negotiating with Jazztel in Spain, according to Varsavsky.
He is also busy signing up regional mangers in different countries who are spreading the word about Fon and working with ISPs. In the U.S., Ejovi Nuwere has signed up for the job, he said.