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Spanish start-up Whisher promises free Wi-Fi for all

Company pledges free Wi-Fi if people share their broadband connections, but service model violates U.S. ISP user agreements.

Spanish start-up Whisher promises free Wi-Fi for allA small Spanish start-up called Whisher is thumbing its nose at U.S. broadband providers as it prepares to launch a new service that lets people share their broadband connections via Wi-Fi.

Whisher, based in Barcelona and backed by Switzerland's leading phone company, Swisscom, and the venture firm Benchmark Capital, is one of several emerging start-ups that is taking broadband to the people by providing access through existing residential Wi-Fi networks.

"Either you believe in the user-generated revolution or you believe ISPs rule the world."
--Ferran Moreno, co-founder and CEO of Whisher

Starting Tuesday, users can download the beta version of the company's software from its Web site. The service and software are free. Users aren't required to offer up their own Wi-Fi access to use other Wi-Fi networks around the world.

Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed radio frequency technology for accessing the Internet, is a relatively cheap and ubiquitous technology. Not only is it embedded in almost every laptop shipped today, but mobile devices such as cell phones are also coming equipped with the technology.

While companies such as EarthLink are building new networks to blanket cities like Philadelphia and New Orleans with Wi-Fi signals, Whisher and Fon Wireless, another Spanish start-up, are banking on the willingness of large numbers of people to share their excess broadband with others. And just as Skype, another European start-up, challenged the established telephone companies by providing free Internet calling, Whisher also hopes to shake up the establishment by offering an easy way to share and access Wi-Fi for free.

"Either you believe in the user-generated revolution or you believe ISPs rule the world," said Ferran Moreno, co-founder and CEO of Whisher. "I believe ISPs don't rule the world and how the Internet works. If I am paying for my broadband, I have the right to share it with other people, as long as I am not reselling the service. And we are not reselling access."

Of course, there is one small snag in Moreno's utopian view of free Wi-Fi for everyone. In the U.S., it's illegal.

"Sharing broadband access outside of your dwelling is a violation of our subscriber agreement," said Maureen Huff, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, the second largest cable operator in the U.S. "We've taken steps as a company to inform our customers that passive or active theft of our services is illegal, and people who violate these agreements can be prosecuted on a criminal and civil basis."

Time Warner and other broadband providers such as Verizon Communications said it's rare that they have to take action against subscribers sharing their broadband service outside their home. When they become aware of such a situation, the broadband providers typically contact subscribers and remind them of the companies' policies. In 90 percent of the cases, users stop sharing their broadband, Huff said.

But representatives from each company said that if illegal sharing persists, the company takes action, which could result in users getting their service cut off or even facing prosecution.

"We don't actively police this," said Bobbi Henson, a spokeswoman for Verizon Communications. "But if we become aware of a situation, we will do something, especially if we see a degradation of service. We have a duty to our customers to keep an optimum level of service."

So far, broadband providers have not come down hard on other companies proposing to build free Wi-Fi networks that cobble together networks using existing Wi-Fi hot spots. But this could be because these networks are still relatively new, and their service models require additional equipment.

For example, Fon, based in Madrid, launched its service last year. Initially, the service required users to download software onto their existing Wi-Fi routers. The software on the routers then splits the Wi-Fi signals to provide a private network indoors and a public one outdoors. But downloading software onto a router proved too difficult for most users. In the fall, the company introduced the La Fonera router. The company to spur adoption.

"Most people...want to be able to call customer care when something goes wrong, and they don't want to have to rely on their neighbor as their Internet service provider."
--Bobbi Henson, Verizon Communications spokeswoman

As of October, the company only had about 112,000 La Fonera and Fon-enabled routers registered as part of its network. Henson of Verizon said the company has seen little to no impact from Fon on its network so far.

Moreno believes Whisher's approach could be more successful, much faster than Fon's model. The main reason is that Whisher's solution is completely software-based. The company has developed peer-to-peer software that runs on any Linux, Mac or Windows machine and works over any Wi-Fi network. The software works by providing the necessary authentication registered users need to gain access to a particular Wi-Fi network. The company keeps a database of registered users and hot spots. When a user wants to connect to a Wi-Fi network, the software finds the best access point and automatically provides secure access to that network.

Whisher's solution is much more than providing free Internet access, Moreno said. The software also creates a wireless social network that allows users to send instant messages, share files and establish private and public micro-community networks using Wi-Fi hot spots. Members of the community are encouraged to tag, rate or leave comments about any wireless hot spot.

The interactive and social nature of the software also provides a lot of control to people sharing their Wi-Fi connection. Because all users are registered with Whisher, the person who owns the residential network can see which users are on his network at any given time. Users on the network can communicate with each other through IM. And if the network owner doesn't want someone using his connection, he has the option to block people trying to access his connection.

Like any other social network, Whisher's success is completely dependent on getting people to download the software and also to share their connections. Like Skype, which also uses peer-to-peer client software, Moreno believes that an easily downloadable client that provides free Internet access will have wide appeal.

But Henson of Verizon is skeptical that American broadband consumers will actually be willing to use other people's connections, even if it's free.

"Most people don't want to share their connection," she said. "They want to be able to call customer care when something goes wrong, and they don't want to have to rely on their neighbor as their Internet service provider."