The grassroots nature of the Internet is not dead.
About a week ago, FON announced an agreement with Time Warner Cable that will enable the operator's 6.6 million broadband customers to set up their own hotspots. The deal shows the spirit of innovation that took the Internet from a platform for obscure military and academic uses to perhaps the main form of communications in the world. FON is a Spanish company that provides worldwide wireless Internet access. The company sells routers ("La Foneras") to its subscribers, who are called "Foneros." The router's bandwidth is divided between a private channel for the Foneros' use and a public channel. Depending on what it does with the public channel, a Fonero is either a Linus (after Linux pioneer Linus Torvalds) or a Bill (after Bill Gates).
A Linus shares his or her capacity with other Foneros and, therefore, can use other Foneros for free. A Bill provides some of their bandwidth to non-subscribers (called "Aliens") who pay about $3 for a day pass. The fee is split between FON and the Bill. Bills have to pay to use other Foneros.
Letting people set up their own hotspots seems like a lot of fun, and the names are a cute twist. But it also is something of a force with which to be reckoned, considering that Google, Sequoia Capital and Skype are among its investors. This figures to be FON's big move in the states and there is some speculation at various blogs -- such as Andy Abramson's VoIP Watch and GigaOm -- about the potential impact of the deal on municipal Wi-Fi.
Abramson makes the point that the cable industry has been surprisingly absent from the public Wi-Fi sector considering that it has two assets -- widely deployed fiber and high-speed networks -- that would make jumping into the market easy. This could be such a foray.
That may be true. But the Time Warner/FON deal in the long run likely will be more an interesting example of the innovation possible on the Internet and as an add-on that could make Time Warner Cable's offering richer and its bundles "stickier," a marketing term denoting services designed to keep customers from leaving.
The growth of FON is not to be discounted, but it is fair to note that there reportedly are only about 60,000 Foneros in the U.S. Despite the statement made by that impressive group of investors, it seems that negotiating through Foneros, Bills, Linuses and Aliens may be a bit too involved for most laptop users. That doesn't mean, however, that FON isn't fun and a good reminder of the innovation in the Internet's past -- and future.