I received an alert from Fierce Wireless last week that Google and Skype have recently invested in a startup company that offers a mechanism using which broadband ‘users’ can share their wifi connections with others.
The model is simple: You buy a ‘FON’ enabled wifi router ad plug in into your existing broadband connection. The FON router has special routing and authentication sofware which then allows this connection to be access by others.
This is not a new technology – wifi sharing is a very old thought (almost as old as wifi itself) and was never successfully implemented because of several issues:
a) Range - This only effectively works if the access points are ‘within connecting range’ of each other. If you have ever tried to surf the web on your neighbor’s hi-speed internet (now, now ! I am not saying I did !) you would realize that signal drops are very frequent and quite frustrating. On top of that, the Linksys boxes that FON uses (I guess Linksys is their hardware partner) don’t do a particularly good job with signal strength (In fact, in my experience, Linksys boxes are one of the worst in signal strength)
b) More than sharing - Sharing is not just about exposing your SSID. A true peer2peer Wifi sharing and routing protocol should take care of more challenging aspects such as failover of access points, IP change as a ‘FON’ user moves from one AP to other and other things
c) Security – Wifi also comes along with security concerns. Peer2Peer sharing technologies always have a concern of owners running detection software to read my passwords. For example, what if I connect to a network called ‘FON_naughtyboy’ which is nothing but an access point hosted by some teenage geeks who are sniffing anyone who joins their network ? Good end-end encryption is ofcourse the way to address this, but this being a P2P network, the basic assumption of ‘centralized trust’ is no longer there. We now need to trust that every access point in the FON network is well behaved.
d) Peer2Peer Applications vs. Infrastructure – there is a difference between sharing applications vs. infrastructure in P2P networks. When people download music using BitTorrent, or call using Skype, they are running P2P applications – not exchanging banking passwords or logging into personal emails. On the other hand, wifi infrastructure sharing means that shared infrastructure will be used for all applications, including personal ones.
So How is FoN addressing various P2P issues ?
a) Range and Reach – FoN has got Google and Skype as backers and Sequoia Captial and Index Ventures as investors. A strong team. Success of any peer2peer sharing mechaism completely depends on how many people sign up. FON makes sense for Skype: Skype has over 85 million users today and any effort that provides more un-regulated broadband access means more installs of Skype clients and more subscribers. FON also makes a lot of sense for Google. It is public knowledge that google is furiously working towards setting up high speed datacentres to offer broadband to the last mile to all users. In a recent post, I mentioned that they are already working with companies such as Tropos to offer mesh wifi. FON is another kind of mesh wifi where users participate in network buildout. In terms of range, FON has already started partnership with ISPs (such as Glocalnet in EU). here is a snapshot of FON access points in the US - the nice thing is as more users install more FON routers, this map will keep getting updated.
b) Security – what do you do when the underlying network cannot be trusted? You resort to end-end encryption with trusted hosts. Remember Google’s “secure access installer” ? Their logic is this – if you don’t trust the network, trust google. So, if people are concerned that p2p wifi mesh networks are fundamentally insecure, install this secure encrypted tunnel software on your PC – and the communication over the Wifi network will be ‘Google Certified’. Ofcourse, this is just a hypothesis – but this is how I see Google will expand its vision with FON.
c) Making Money - Fon is also working on releasing a billing network where 'FONeros' (FON users) can charge a fee if they wish when they share their bandwith. Several issues need to be ironed out here, but it is an intersting model.
d) Reliability - FON is playing a different paradigm here. It is about offering ubiquotous access points. You no longer have to 'search' for 'wifi enabled spots in starbucks' or airports. 100% reliability is not a requirement here. If an access point goes down, hunt for another. And it is not expected that a home accesspoint is being shared with thousands. Considering their limited range, it is likely that the number of users per access point will be much less than 100 !
FON is nothing new in technology. However, it has the right partners and the right investors. It’s partners already have a strong build-out network which FON can expect to ride. And when they use catchy lines like “Join The Movement!” and “Become a Fonero Today” – its already a marketing cult isn’t it ? Sigh.