Sometimes it’s just not easy to get a Wi-Fi connection, which is why two companies making news this week see a business model in helping users pool their wireless resources.
Wi-Fi network provider Fon has been around since 2005, and founder Martin Varsavsky announced today that his company now has more than five million hotspots established worldwide. These aren’t just any hotspots either. Every Fon member, called a Fonero, agrees to share his or her own Internet connection in exchange for Wi-Fi access at user hotspots around the globe. In other words, when you sign up with Fon, you become part of a network of hotspots, with free access to all of them.
The availability of hotspots from Fon varies by region, but in passing the five million mark, the company has achieved something of a critical mass. In addition, Fon has partnered with a number of telecom companies (although none in the U.S.) to help speed future growth. Regular users need to buy a specific Fonera router to join the network, but subscribers with Internet service from companies like Belgacom and BT already have compatible equipment and can join the Fon community for free.
KeyWiFi, meanwhile, is a start-up wireless company with a slightly different focus. Founder Adam Black wants to put idle bandwidth to good use and share Wi-Fi access with consumers who might otherwise not be able to afford a monthly Internet subscription. His theory is that some users don’t need all of the Internet bandwidth they get and would be happy to sell off the excess at a cheap rate. According to reporter Alex Goldmark, Black believes there is opportunity in bandwidth sharing in the same way Airbnb has created a market for peer-to-peer room rentals. He also wants to provide a public service, and has already started a pilot program with a public housing community in New York to offer more affordable broadband through Wi-Fi sharing.
The concept of spreading Internet connections around is a good one, but there are limitations. As GigaOM reporter Stacey Higginbotham points out, broadband quality and bandwidth caps can put a damper on Wi-Fi sharing. For both FON and KeyWiFi, the key to success is likely in targeting the right customer areas. These are areas where bandwidth is plentiful, demand is high, and there exists a population of users who want to defray the cost of rising Internet subscription fees. In the U.S. Verizon FiOS markets, and a certain Google community in Kansas City would fit the bill nicely.