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11/25/2008
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Worldwide Wi-Fi Social Network Takes Off

WeFi's free software download enables users to connect to 10 million Wi-Fi access points around the world.

After identifying 10 million Wi-Fi access points globally, and having 1 million users log on, WeFi is well on its way to proving that the reports of the death of Wi-Fi in municipalities are greatly exaggerated.

WeFi has tapped into the exploding worldwide base of open Wi-Fi access points and is offering free software downloads for its application that enables users to connect to Wi-Fi access points anywhere in the world where they are available.

"PCs are our biggest user base now," said Amit Shaked, VP of Web and products, in an interview Tuesday. "We added Symbian and Windows Mobile about four months ago, and we're now beginning to accumulate smartphone users."

Here's how WeFi works: A consumer with Wi-Fi capability on a laptop or a smartphone with Symbian or Windows Mobile operating system software logs on to the WeFi site and downloads its free software. After signing up for the service, consumers can use any of the more than 10 million WeFi-certified open Wi-Fi access points in the company's global database.

Shaked said of the 1 million people who have downloaded software, about 250,000 have signed up for the free service. The most active users are from the United States, which represents between 20% and 30% of the global user base.

There are strong social networking features to WeFi. Because the WeFi global map and central database contain the location of each access point, a user's location can be displayed if he or she chooses to make it available to friends or even strangers. "Users can also be updated on a fellow user's location via WeFi's applications with popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter," according to the company.

What about access points that are closed by passwords?

Obviously, WeFi can't use those encrypted Wi-Fi access points, but Shaked says the worldwide trend is for the addition of so many access points that there will be enough to cover more and more regions and countries. Besides, more people and businesses in more countries are opening their Wi-Fi access points, he noted. When a user encounters an open access point not on the WeFi database, its location is automatically recorded, and after less than a minute of updating, it's included in the database.

The openness of Wi-Fi access points differs from country to country, Shaked said, observing that the Swiss seem to have their access points nearly 100% encrypted. On the other hand, the majority of Wi-Fi access points in many Far Eastern countries are open. "In the U.S., more than 40% of access points are not encrypted," Shaked said.

At first glance, WeFi may seem similar to the heavily financed Fon service that has users, called Foneros, registered globally to use Wi-Fi hotspots. There are important differences, however. Foneros must purchase a modem for the service and the Spanish company can't scale its business easily. At last count, Fon had more than 350,000 users, a respectable number.

"We're good friends with Fon," said Shaked. "We look at Fon as being supply side and WeFi as demand side. We access Fon."

WeFi has profit motives, too. Shaked said the company is exploring different ways to generate income. It has been talking with major telecommunications carriers about the advantage of taking over some of the overloading traffic on mobile nets. "Using Wi-Fi can be a solution," he said.

The WeFi technology and network could be licensed by mobile application providers for use for games, video downloads, and uploads, Shaked said. Another use could be to keep data-roaming charges in line, particularly in European countries where mobile phone users get hit with expensive roaming charges when they cross country borders.

WeFi is backed by the venture capital companies Lightspeed in Silicon Valley, and Pitango and Gemini Ventures in Israel.

The WeFi application could be just the thing for the multitude of U.S. municipalities that have tried and failed to build Wi-Fi networks in their communities.

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