New York is lagging behind Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other areas in developing the latest geek Utopia: the citywide wi-fi network. Maybe this is because telecoms don’t want it. Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon, which is headquartered here, has dissed municipal wi-fi as “one of the dumbest ideas I have ever heard.” The technical challenges are too great for a government to surmount, he argues, and are better left to the private sector. Which means, outside of the free hot spot at Bryant Park, you’re probably stuck paying for it at Starbucks.
Enter Fon, a four-month-old start-up from Madrid, Spain, which is essentially declaring war on Big Telecom in an effort to build a grassroots, anywhere wi-fi network that works like a secret club. The goal of the service, which hit the U.S. last week, is to create a global community of people who swap wi-fi access with each other. Using your own wireless router or one bought for $25 from Fon, you download free software that lets you share bandwidth with other “foneros.” Foneros can then travel the world, hopping online freely whenever they are within range. Fon.com has maps pinpointing other members. For those who don’t have bandwidth to share, access to the network is available at $2 a day.
Of course, many New Yorkers already rip off each other’s wi-fi access for nothing, but Fon formalizes and secures the transaction. “I love the Internet, and I love for the Internet to be everywhere,” its Argentine founder, Martin Varsavsky, effuses by cell phone during a layover in London. “I want to unify the world!”
Varsavsky has reason to be giddy. Investors including Google and Skype put up $21.7 million to spread Fon, which is already available in 50 countries. Since its November debut, Fon has grown to include more than 15,000 foneros worldwide. Varsavsky opened a U.S. headquarters in Manhattan and hired Ejovi Nuwere, who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and shares his fervor, to run it. “The Internet introduced me to a new world that saved my life,” Nuwere says, an experience he chronicled in his 2003 memoir, Hacker Cracker. Nuwere started a consulting company, SecurityLab, and was named one of BusinessWeek’s top 25 entrepreneurs under 25 in November.
For all the bravado, there are plenty of hurdles. Many Internet-service providers prohibit subscribers from sharing bandwidth. “There are risks inherent in doing this,” says Verizon spokesperson Bobbi Henson. “[Subscribers] are responsible for anything that happens via their connection.” But Nuwere notes there’s no anonymous surfing on Fon.
Fon hopes to win over the ISPs by giving them half of the $2 access fees. Regardless of whether Verizon signs on, there will still be other problems. “Even if they have 10,000 foneros in urban cities, the access points will be far apart and low-powered,” says wi-fi guru Glenn Fleishman of wifinetnews.com. Varsavsky’s in a numbers race. Can he hype Fon enough to get the user base to make it more than just hype? “It’s the same as democracy. If no one cares, no one votes,” he says, spinning it into something more revolutionary-sounding. “Our challenge is indifference.”