FON expands its homespot model into businesses

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FON, the grandfather of the homespot idea which is revolutionizing many carriers’ wireless models, is expanding more heavily into business locations, a move which may bring it head-to-head with Google, at least in the US.

The Spanish provider of crowdsourced WiFi – via home gateways which feature a second SSID, open for use by qualified passers-by – has launched a beta program and a new edition of its Fonera router, targeting businesses, particularly small and medium enterprises where a conventional WiFi hotspot would be commonly found (stores, coffee shops and so on).

It is inviting consumer-facing businesses to install the upgraded Fonera router, keeping the secured element for internal company use and opening the rest of the capacity up for the general public. While in the residential model, any FON member (Fonero) can access the open portion of any FON router for free, in the business world, the premises will decide who can use its open network, and on what terms. Any user accessing a FON business hotspot for the first time will register for a free account, which can then be used to log in automatically to any other FON hotspots in future.

Businesses in 28 countries, including the US and much of Europe, can take part in the beta program, which will last for several months.

While the expansion into business could broaden FON’s 13m-strong network still further, and add to its attraction for partners such as mobile and broadband operators, the benefits for enterprises are less obvious than for home users. While residents get incentives to share part of their capacity – usually subsidized broadband fees – businesses can easily offer WiFi, either free or paid-for, by installing their own hotspot. To join the beta program, they will need to buy a Fonera router for $69 or €49, though beta participants will be exempt from future membership fees when the program launches commercially.

The chief benefit is likely to center not on reduced costs, but on gaining a managed service, and access to simple tools to set rules about access.  And FON says it plans to build up its data and analytics tools, to provide more sophisticated customer information to its business partners than its current basic demographic data.

The FON program has echoes of Google’s recent activities in business WiFi in the US. The search giant – always looking for ways to expand low cost internet access, to boost usage of its services and undermine the closed carrier model – is working with Ruckus Wireless to create a US network of hundreds of thousands of business nodes, which it will manage from the cloud. Participants get low cost or free access provided they join Google’s public network, and in some cases, subsidized hardware.

Google is using Ruckus’s cloud-based WLAN controller system to help scale up its business WiFi network quickly. The idea is to build a platform to which any business nationwide (and perhaps beyond the US in future) could connect its WiFi routers, gaining easy deployment and management, and low cost equipment. In effect this would add the small and medium businesses, which are the main target, to the clouds of residential WiFi already being created via the homespot roll-outs, and to public hotspot systems like CableWiFi.  

Ruckus’s virtualized system can connect tens of thousands of access points to the same virtual network, which will save Google the complexity of managing many local business WLANs individually. It can also use the platform to deliver cloud-based applications such as advertising and point-of-sale payments in a centralized way, to all the connected access points; and it can sell services such as analytics to the participants.

This is just one way that Google hopes to push WiFi to its limits in terms of supporting its core businesses. It is already working in a more traditional way in WiFi service provision, and has replaced AT&T as the WISP for Starbucks coffee shops in the US. It is building free WiFi zones in US public parks and in white spaces spectrum in Africa. It is also active in evolving the technology itself, so that it is able to take advantage of any new unlicensed spectrum which comes available, such as 60GHz – the firm has an experimental licence to test emerging gigabit WiFi and HetNet/small cell technologies on its Mountain View campus, for instance.  

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.