Hey, buddy, wanna buy a cheap wireless router? Head over to Fon and nab the Linksys WRT54GLs they're selling for just $5. Is there a catch? Sure, there's a catch. But it's not a bad deal all the same.
Fon is a growing network of people who use Wi-Fi to share their broadband connections. If you join the network and put your connection on the network, any other Fon member can use your Wi-Fi, and you can use theirs, too, free of charge. And that's where the cheapo routers come in: You need special firmware in your networking equipment. You can download the code from Fon and install it on your router, or you can buy a router with Fon preinstalled, direct from Fon. There will be 1 million cheap routers available as part of a big push the company is launching today to grow its global network.
If you're not a Fon member, you can still use the network for $3 a day. This is how Fon makes money. You can also sell access to your network. If you do this, you don't get free access to other Fon routers, but it's a good option if you run a retail business and want to make a few buck from your broadband connection. If you sell access to your connection, you get half the revenues your access point takes in; Fon keeps the rest. (Fon calls people who share Wi-Fi in exchange for using it elsewhere Linuses; paying users are Aliens; those who sell their connections are Bills.)
It is a very clever, highly viral way to get people to share their Wi-Fi connections. My big question: Is this legal? A spokesperson told me, "We don't encourage using the service where it's not legal," but the Fon site doesn't say where it is and is not. He also told me that several ISPs, especially those that are second and third in their markets, have approached Fon about partnering. Apparently, they see this network as something that will drive broadband adoption.
The Fon network is rather small right now--there are about 57,000 Foneros worldwide, which isn't many considering the size of the planet and the range of Wi-Fi. But this new program might help the network grow. And Fon is one of the coolest economics experiments I've ever seen. I'm tempted to try it, although two things are holding me back right now: First, I just upgraded my broadband to 8 megabits a second, and I'm not sure I want to see it cut back to 4. Granted that's worst case, but if other Foneros want to hop on my network, the Fon router firmware will give them up to half my bandwidth. Second, all Fon wireless users have to be authenticated to the Fon network, including those in your household. This makes users guests of Fon in their own house. You also can't use wireless security on Fon.
Fon keeps the wired and wireless parts of your network separate from each other, so it's not like other Fon users will get access to your wired home network. And an upcoming version of the firmware will allow one router to run two virtual wireless networks, one public for the Foneros, and one private for the router owner. It'll also give you more control over bandwidth sharing. When that comes out, I'll seriously consider joining the network.