Business your connection to The Boston Globe

Google, eBay unit back plan to charge for WiFi access

Software not ready for hot spot fees

NEW YORK -- Google Inc. and eBay Inc.'s Skype are investing in a startup that plans to help hot spot owners charge for WiFi access, a plan that could face significant opposition from Internet service providers.

The Internet heavyweights were joined by venture capital firms Index Ventures and Sequoia Capital in making a $22 million investment in FON, the Spanish startup. In its announcement yesterday, FON did not say how much each investor was contributing.

FON's idea, floated just three months ago in a Web posting by founder Martin Varsavsky, is to sign up people who have WiFi hot spots in one of two ways.

Linus members -- named after Linus Torvalds, who created the freely distributed Linux software -- will share their hot spot with other Linus members for free.

Bill members, named after Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, will charge for access to their hot spot. FON will get some of that revenue and share it with Internet service providers.

The network has gained 3,000 Linus members since going live in November. There is no software yet for Bill members, but Varsavsky expects it to be ready within four months. Linus software is so far only available for WiFi routers from Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems Inc.

FON faces a hurdle, because most service providers prohibit subscribers from sharing access with people outside their household. Many broadband subscribers share their access now for free, though, and it's hard for Internet service providers to stop them.

Traffic from a FON-connected hot spot would be easy for an ISP to identify, said Glen Fleishman, editor of the WiFi Networking News site, because users have to authenticate themselves at a FON server.

Varsavsky wants to partner with service providers to get them to allow their subscribers to set up FON hot spots. It has signed up a Swedish provider, Glocalnet, and is in discussions with US companies.

To win over the providers, Varsavsky points out that Linus members need Internet service to be Linus members. ''In fact, FON is an incentive to become a customer of an ISP," he said.

Mark Harrad, a spokesman at Time Warner Cable, said the company was not aware of FON's plans. Time Warner Cable's terms of service prohibit its 4.8 million residential broadband subscribers from sharing their connection outside the household.

Representatives at Google did not return messages seeking comment on the search engine's investment in FON.

Skype's Internet telephone service works over wireless connections, and a cellphone-like device is in the works to take advantage of that fact.

''FON has a great idea to help people share WiFi with one another to build a global unified broadband network, and we're happy to lend support," said a statement released by Skype chief executive Niklas Zennstrom.

FON's idea is not entirely novel. Several companies and associations have tried to tie free WiFi hot spots into networks, but none has succeeded on a large scale.

''The problem with all these free projects is that they fail because everybody wants to be a freeloader and nobody wants to provide WiFi," said Varsavsky. FON, on the other hand, demands reciprocal sharing from its Linus users.

There are also commercial WiFi networks built by T-Mobile USA and Boingo Wireless Inc. with hot spots in more than 50,000 locations. Varsavsky hopes to have a much larger network by the end of the year because FON doesn't have to create the hot spots by itself.

Fleishman said FON has a chance to reach a critical mass of users, but it will be competing with free or low-cost municipal WiFi networks in several cities. Google itself has offered to build a free WiFi network to cover San Francisco.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives