FON Hopes to Break WiFi Free of Fees

The Google-backed start-up lets homeowners and businesses join a wireless insurgency.

The La Fonera router shares WiFi with friends and strangers.

WiFi yearns to be free. But it's a struggle, and there is mixed news on efforts to make wireless networks available to all comers.

AT&T recently announced it would give free WiFi access to many Starbucks customers at the coffee stores. But efforts to blanket whole cities have stumbled as costs and technical challenges overwhelm municipal governments and their partners. A crushing blow came when EarthLink said it was abandoning plans to spread a wireless network across a number of metropolitan areas.

Smaller, less ambitious efforts are stepping into the breach. And you can be part of it, if you're willing to invest a few bucks, a bit of time, and a slice of your WiFi network. A Spanish start-up called FON is steadily expanding a shared wireless network, home by home and business by business.

FON sells a router that allows you to split a broadband connection between two wireless networks, one for you and your family—another for strangers strolling by. In turn, you get free access to other FON routers.

FON has the backing of Google, Skype, and other investors that envision a free, worldwide wireless network that can compete with cellphone companies and other providers. FON has had greater success overseas, getting 80 percent coverage or better in cities like Tokyo, Berlin, and Leipzig, Germany.

It's a longer haul in the United States, mostly because of its many, widespread Internet markets and providers. "This country represents such a vast geography," says Joanna Rees, head of FON's efforts here. "We need to create density zones, starting in cities and spreading over time."

FON, for example, recently decided to target the Castro district in San Francisco. The effort mirrors one in a predominantly gay neighborhood in Madrid, Rees says. "We've found gay neighborhoods have a strong sense of community and a high adoption of technology." FON brought in a Cher impersonator last month to help roll out its "Share Castro" effort. Similar whimsy pervades the company's video ads, which feature a fully garbed matador moaning about the $10-a-day access charges at Starbucks.

Starbucks will charge less under its new deal with AT&T—about $2 an hour or $6 a day. The coffee chain will also give its loyal, Starbucks card-carrying customers two hours of free access each day, and AT&T will open the network for unlimited time to most of its broadband customers.

FON execs say they welcome the expanded access to WiFi, although many FON routers in this country were aimed at Starbucks stores. Those routers would typically charge for access at a rate cheaper than what Starbucks offered, with the hotspot owner sharing revenue with FON. Those FON participants who charge for access, sharing revenue with the network, are a minority. Most of the router owners offer free access. FON hopes to eventually make money from advertising on those routers.

But for now, FON has more the flavor of a quiet insurgency, especially in the United States. The company has wormed its way into the establishment in other places, through agreements with major Internet providers to add its router-sharing technology to broadband modems. Here, it's been lucky to get the explicit blessing of Time Warner that its cable modem customers could share their access. Sharing broadband is expressly forbidden in many end-user contracts. FON's Rees says no Internet service provider has yet complained about customers sharing access, but FON wants more explicit support from other U.S. broadband companies.

Communities might encourage a patchwork of smaller networks as efforts falter to build giant, citywide WiFi systems. Rees argues that a patchwork is more sustainable in the long run. But that also suggests a long, laborious process that will keep most WiFi in chains for a while.