FON, the bummer
By Michiel van der Vlist, 2:280/5555

Last month I wrote about my not so successful hunt for FON access points. In the meantime it has become clearer why on a ten day 1000 km trip I was not able to find a single operational FON hotspot.

The sad truth is that FON has mislead the fon community about the size of the network. When I wrote my first article in July and I proudly announced that I am now Fonero #67129 and that there were over 70.000 registered foneros by then I did not realize that this number means nothing. They no longer advertise the number of registered foneros on the FON website, but in his personal weblog the founder of FON, Martin Varsavsky, claims the 100.000 milestone has been passed. Thing is... it means nothing. The 100.000 is just the number of people that registered themselves. It does not mean that they are active in any way. Registration is free and it takes effort to unregister. So it does not take a degree in rocket science to predict that there will be "some" dead wood in the forest.

Old FON map example The revelation came with the new maps. The old maps just showed the locations of the registered foneros. But there are actually three types of fonero: linus, bill and alien. An alien is someone who has registered himself with FON, but who has no FON hotspot on line. An alien has to pay for the use of the FON network. A one day card is three Euro. A Bill is someone who has a registered FON access point and who gets a share of the revenues generated through it. A bill has to pay when using someone else's FON access point, just like an alien. The third and in my humble opinion most attractive option is to become a linus. A linus does not get paid for sharing his registered hotspot, but in return gets free use of all the other FON hotspots. World wide.

The new maps make a distinction in that they show an orange dot for a fonero without a registered access point and a green spot for the registered ones. Now zoom in on the centre of a big city like Amsterdam. Don't get discouraged by the extreme slow loading of the maps. There are a hundred and twenty one registered foneros in the centre of Amsterdam. But only a disappointing twenty four have the green aura to indicate a registered FON router. So there are twenty four FON hotspot in the centre of Amsterdam? Eh.. no. Look closer and you will notice two different shades of green. Dark and light. The FON router sends a heartbeat every hour to the central FON server to let it know it is on-line. The dark green spots are the routers that have been on-line in the last hour. And then we are down to ten. The rest is off-line...

New FON map example
AMSTERDAM CENTRE Only ten out of a hundred twenty one. 10/121... Other big cities show similar figures. San Fransisco: 10/149, Berlin: 12/166, Johannesburg 0/2, Rome 9/117. The best is FON's home town, Madrid: 23/204. Mind you that the routers are on line does not mean they are usable as a FON hotspot. It could be locked in a Faraday cage, it could be too far away from the street to produce a usable signal. The signal could be drowned by other signals. Or the owner could have moved to another location and not updated his position on the maps. Maybe that is what happened to the hotspot shown on the maps about two km west of me. I have been there with the laptop several times in the last weeks, it just isn't there. According to the maps there was a heartbeat last week. There was a hotspot in July, but now it just is not there any more and the heartbeat is now gone as well. Whatever happened, the only FON hotspot that I ever connected other than my own is gone.

The claims of FON being the largest WiFi community on this planet turn out to be just hot air and I think FON has made a big mistake by misleading their congregation to this extent. They need volunteers to keep the hotspots in the air. To mislead them is not very smart as in the end the truth always comes out and misleading volunteers is deadly for their motivation. I frankly do not know if I will go on with the plan to mount an external antenna on the roof for my FON hotspot. Oh well, I am a HAM, I like playing with antennas, so I will probably do it anyway. But how many others will still be motivated to continue to support the project after finding out the painfull truth?

Drop Linksys support FON has made other mistakes. Another mistake is that they have dropped support for the LinkSys. They promised that the next version of the firmware would have two SSID's. One for a public FON network and one for a private WLAN with WPA and WEP encryption. They have however changed their strategy. Apparently the strategy of giving out Linksys routers for a bargain has failed because many just bought it to get a good router for a bargain without any intention of ever sharing their resources. Register it, reflash it with the original Linksys software and forget about FON is apparently what many did. The problem is of course that there is no way to prevent this. In most European countries the "promise" to actually keep the hotspot on line is not legally binding.

La Fonera So now they have changed strategy, they dropped the Linksys and they made a deal with a manufacturer for a custom made WiFi access point: La Fonera. It sells for €5 plus VAT and shipping and it only works with the FON firmware so it can not be sold on e-bay. So far... This leaves the early adopters with the Linksys in the cold. When La Fonora was introduced I got an e-mail promising me a "special offer" for a Fonera plus a "surprise". Well I am still waiting. But even if they give me a Fonera for a bargain, why should I take it? What is in it for me? I already have what I joined FON for in the first place: free InterNet access via their hotspots. But that turned out to be a bit of a bummer...

On the bright side: the firmeware for the Linksys is based on an open source project: Openwrt. So we may see some "unofficial" firmware updates for the Linksys emerge in the not too distant future.

Fon maps And then the maps.. They are next to useless. Last month I wrote about the shortcomings of the maps; those were the old maps. The new maps are worse! For starters the system is agonisingly slow. The maps take minutes to load! Google Earth is an amazing project and I am dazzlad by the wealth of information it can provide. I can see the solar cells on my roof. Amazing! And also utterly useless when it come to finding a FON hotspot. I do not need high resolution satellite pictures, what I need is a simple list of addresses or coordinates of the hotspots in the area I am going to visit. A list that I can print out and take with me when I go on a trip. Offline! But the new maps do not offer that. For a short while there was an option to downlaod a POI file for the popular navigation devices, but they removed that. As to the why we can only guess, but I would not be surprised if FON was swamped by complaints of people who drew a blank. Too revealing.

I am also getting serious reservations about FON's business model. As I understand it FON started out as a competitor for the mobile telephone providers. That would be nice wouldn't it? Blow those greedy GSM operators with their usurious roaming charges off their socks! But I don't hear them about that any more. You need a browser interface to log into a FON hotspot and there are few WiFi VOIP phones on the market that can handle that. So they seem to have dropped that idea and are now concentrating on the more traditional InterNet applications.

Alien Keep in mind that the actual source of income are the aliens. FON is sponsored by Google and Skype, but they shall eventually want something in return for their investment. Aliens pay €3 a day for access to the FOn network. That is a lot cheaper than what most commercial WiFi providers ask, but then again those others actually have hotspots in places where the traveller can make use of them. So who is going to pay €3 a day for access via hotspots that are harder to find than the numerous free ones on this planet?

Frankly I would not be all that surprised if FON went out of business before I ever have an opportunity to make use of one of their hotspots. Pity, it looked like a good idea.

So Join The Family of FON: www.fon.com

FON index
FON, join the family
FON, the search
FON, four years later

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Join the family of FON First published Oct 25, 2006 | last changed April 17, 2011.
© 2006-2011, Michiel van der Vlist