Fon's Crowdsourced Wi-Fi Finds a Test Zone in Brooklyn

Fonera Wi-Fi router
Courtesy Fon
Crowdsourced Wi-Fi provider Fon’s launch in the U.S. has been a bit disappointing. In October, the company announced big plans to bring its service to the U.S., but its signature Wi-Fi router, the Fonera, hasn’t started shipping yet. And though it’s started signing up community members, Fon hasn’t exactly broken any recruitment records. Only about 1,000 future “Foneros” are on its list.

Fon, however, is planning a surgical strike of sorts in New York City in the next few weeks with the goal of building momentum. Fon’s bandwidth-sharing model works best when it has dense clusters of customers all in the same geographical area—in the U.K., France, and Japan, the company’s service is in one of every six households thanks to its partnerships with local carriers. So Fon has decided to target one particular New York City neighborhood: downtown Brooklyn.

First, the company is bringing its community network to hot zones, working with the New York Economic Development Corp. and DAS Communications to install outdoor Foneras in high-traffic commercial corridors in the area. Second, it’s recruiting Brooklyn businesses into the network with the help of the Downtown Brooklyn Project in hopes of bring 50 to 150 storefronts online. And finally, it’s giving 1,000 Foneras to downtown Brooklyn residents in an effort to seed neighborhood streets with Wi-Fi signals.

The effort is one of seemingly dozens of local Wi-Fi projects going on in New York City. On Tuesday, the city announced plans to build a hotspot network covering 95 blocks in Harlem. Madrid-based Gowex has deployed 2,000 hotspots in commercial corridors throughout the city. While Fon’s outdoor hotspots will also be free to the public, they’ll also form part of its larger crowdsourced community network.

Fon’s model is pretty simple: If you share your Wi-Fi with the community, you get access to every other community member’s Wi-Fi. The company’s router splits its signal into private and community networks, so members’ privacy is protected. Globally it has about 12.3 million access points, but in the U.S. the number is still tiny—mainly the handful of people who have either brought in Foneras from overseas and the veterans of Fon’s aborted attempt to the enter the U.S. seven years ago.

To grow and ultimately make its network useful to members, the Wi-Fi provider needs to create a groundswell of users in specific locations. That’s the same hurdle that homegrown bandwidth-sharing startups such as Open Garden and Karma face. Fon has managed much of its growth through partnering with carriers and Internet service providers such as BT and SoftBank, which ship Fon’s software in their home wireless gateways. Collectively those carriers’ customers account for 80 percent of Fon’s members.

Fon’s U.S. Chief Executive Officer Nina Sodhi has said the company is in active negotiations with U.S. carriers and cable companies, and it’s already struck a limited deal with AT&T for international data roaming. If Fon lands a Comcast or other big provider as a partner, it could see its subscriber base grow rapidly.

But there’s also trade-off. Typically when the company strikes a deal with an ISP, its Wi-Fi community becomes exclusive to the ISP’s customers in that market. If you want to participate in the Fon community, you have to buy your broadband connections from its partners. Fon is basically trading openness for scale.

It will be interesting to see how Fon grows here in the next few years, but the Wi-Fi provider’s experiment in Brooklyn should be a good indication of whether it has a chance of expanding its community organically.

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