Taking Wi-Fi power to the people

Spanish start-up FON will give away Wi-Fi routers to spur the creation of its grassroots network in San Francisco. Photo: Wi-Fi giveaway

The Spanish start-up FON wants you to help it unwire San Francisco and other cities around the globe by providing ubiquitous Wi-Fi access.

On Friday, the company will give away its Wi-Fi routers, which will allow broadband subscribers to share their Internet connections with Wi-Fi users throughout their communities. "Freedom Friday," as the company is calling the event, will kick off at noon in San Francisco's Union Square.

Citywide Wi-Fi networks, which are built and managed by a city alone or in partnership with a private company, have become popular in the last couple of years as large cities such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco have promised ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage within their borders.

While access to Wi-Fi itself is cheap--it doesn't require expensive radio licenses and is readily accessible by just about every laptop on the market today--building and operating these citywide networks still costs money. Philadelphia estimates it will spend $10 million to build and maintain its network over the next several years. And San Francisco said it will spend $15 million--including maintenance and upgrades--over the next decade.

In total, network providers and local governments building their own networks are expected to spend $235 million to build and operate citywide networks in 2006 alone, according to MuniWireless.com, a Web site that tracks the market. And by 2010, more than $3 billion will spent on these networks, the Web site said in a recent report.

Despite all the hype, only a handful of major cities have Wi-Fi networks up and running. San Francisco, for example, is still negotiating its contract with EarthLink and Google, which were selected to build the network. And New York City is still studying its options.

This is where FON comes in. The company, which, ironically, counts Google as one of its backers, says it has a solution that can be deployed now at very little cost to the city or its residents.

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Video: Free Wi-Fi anyone?
Spain-based FON handed out free "La Fonera" routers in San Francisco, and CNET News.com's Neha Tiwari was there.

"San Francisco or any other city doesn't have to wait for new Wi-Fi networks to be built," said Joanna Rees, chairman of U.S. operations for FON. "There are 400 million Wi-Fi connections around the world. If we could get all of them to become part of the FON community and share their Wi-Fi, we would have ubiquitous coverage around the world today. And we wouldn't need to build municipal Wi-Fi networks."

FON's software allows broadband subscribers to split their Internet connection so that it offers a secure connection indoors and an open connection to people outside the home. Initially, the software could be downloaded onto existing home routers. But this proved too difficult for most people, so FON built its own, small router, called La Fonera.

The La Fonera router, which uses standard 802.11g technology, was introduced only a few weeks ago. It was designed for easy installation. Users simply plug the device into their existing broadband modem, and, voila, their broadband connection is converted into a FON access point.

Currently, about 112,000 La Fonera and FON-enabled routers have been registered with the company. To help spur adoption it's been offering the routers on its Web site for $5 apiece. It's also taking its promotion on the road, offering routers for free in cities such as San Francisco and in New York, where it's planning an East coast "Freedom" event for later this year.

Once users have registered, they become part of the FON community, which allows them free access to any FON hot spot in the world. Non-FON members can also access the network, but they must pay $1 or $2 for 24 hours of access. This small fee is actually how FON generates revenue.

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