'FON' Has Fun With U.S. Launch

Startup launches a volunteer-based global network of Wi-Fi hotspots.



BURLINGAME, Calif. -- If introducing a volunteer-based global network of Wi-Fi hotspots sounds like a crazy idea, you might as well have some fun with the process.

That was the strategy behind Wednesday's "formal" launch of the idea known as "FON" here at the O'Reilly Emerging Telephony conference, an intro that was as formal as sneakers at a black-tie dinner.

FON, which was started last year by Argentine telecom entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, has already started signing up people in Europe who are agreeing to share their Internet access by allowing other FON users to freely access their wireless routers. Other users may simply pay to use the FON network of hotspots, much like you would pay for any other Internet-access service.

While the idea has a huge list of unanswered questions standing between it and success -- not the smallest of which are legal terms of service that can prohibit "sharing" of broadband access -- on Wednesday the company was in full crusade mode in front of a largely appreciative audience of telephony geeks, who answered affiratively almost in unison when asked if they had a Wi-Fi router at home.

FON's leader for North America, the charismatic Ejovi Nuwere, drew more than a few laughs with FON's over-the-top promotions, which included postcards left in the show hotel's men's bathrooms that showed a shadow outline of a person sitting on a toilet using a laptop computer under the company's "Wi-Fi Everywhere" logo.

"I'm pretty sure that if I could use a Wi-Fi handset in there [the restroom], I would," said Nuwere during his presentation.

Even while its business plan pokes fun at the industry and itself (FON calls its most-generous members "Linuses" after Linux creator Linus Torvalds, and calls those who want a share of revenue from their bandwidth usage "Bills," after Bill Gates), FON is not a joke, said Nuwere, claiming that "we're a business… and we believe we can do well, as well as do good."

Interested users can register on the firm's Web site, and soon will be able to download software that will allow them to join the FON network, Nuware said. According to Nuware, FON has approximately 3,000 "Linus" members signed up in Europe, in locations in Sweden, Spain, France and Germany.

After his speech, Nuware answered a few questions about the regulatory and business hurdles facing FON, which he had earlier admitted would likely be "what's going to hold back FON in America."

One strategy, Nuware said, is to try to partner with "the number two and number three" ISPs in as many markets as possible, to perhaps work out a partnership deal. While the company had no such relationships to announce, Nuware said several second-tier ISPs have expressed an interest in a working relationship. Om Malik has also reported that FON execs have talked to the leaders of online search giant Google, which is also dabbling in Wi-Fi access and could be a significant partner.

Nuware also said that FON has drafted Internet luminaries and industry experts like former San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor and telecom expert David Isenberg to take seats on its advisory board. "They are going to help us figure out the best way to approach the [regulatory] situation," Nuware said.

One hopes, from seats with bottoms on them.

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