FON Free WiFi

I’m sure you will agree this is nothing new but I’ve been intrigued by the FON Free WiFi service for quite some time, just never got round to sharing my thoughts.

With the recent horror stories about wireless mobile subscribers racking up thousands of dollars in mobile data charges I thought I’d finally blog a bit about FON.

Martin Varsavsky founded FON on February 2006 in Madrid, Spain. FON’s mission is to stimulate the growth of WiFi around the world by creating a global Community of “Foneros”. FON is the largest WiFi community and recently reached 1 million members this September.

FON’s goal is to provide Free WiFi access everywhere. To do this they had the idea that to receive you must first give — plant a small mustard seed and receive 10, 20 and 100 folds.

When I first heard about FON, the concept of opening my WiFi to public was a bit scary. For starters you’re asking for trouble because it involves sharing on an unencrypted channel, leaving you vulnerable to malicous attacks. However, I later discovered to share a connection with FON you need their Fonero router. This router has two APs built-in, one for personal use (encrypted via WPA) and the other open to public (unencrypted). It was instant buy-in for me after that. :)

The potential for FON is huge, especially in a small city like Hong Kong. WiFi mobility is a key step towards the evolution of the Internet. To move from stationary workstations to mobile on-the-go always-on access the public needs affordable, available and reliable access with good coverage. FON might just have the right sort of ecosystem to provide for Hong Kong.


  1. Fon does not have one million members!

    Fon has merely collected one million email addresses, many of which are suspect. Fon certainly does not have one million regular users! Fon pretends that they have no churn. They only count increases in their registrations and memberships. Every hotspot that has ever gone live is considered live, even if it has been dead for months or years. Every guest or member who has ever registered, is considered still active, because the formal, but manual process to email "" is buried in a .pdf document on their "Legal Notice" page.

    In order to access Fon's wifi network, You must register your email address and pay €$3/day, or become a member by registering your email address and then contributing your own hotspot to the Fon Network. Originally, you could download their firmware for free, to install onto your own Linksys or Buffalo router. You could also manually configure other firmwares like DD-WRT, which have the neccessary features. Now Fon requires the purchase of their La Fonera router models at $20 or $50+ tax and shipping. It seems likely that much of Fon's income really comes from sales of this proprietary and feature-poor equipment now, rather than sales of wifi access. Fon obtained their firmware for free from the Open Source movement, but they violate the terms because they do not provide sourcecode under the GNU license.

    Members are called "Foneros", and they may be "Linuses" who allow Fon to keep all money earned by his hotspot, or "Bills" who provide a PayPal account and choose to have Fon share a small portion of what they collect from sales at his hotspot. He must pay his own local ISP for high-speed Internet service, and provide the power, maintenance and installation of the hotspot. He must operate this hotspot 24/7/365, and permit Fon to unconditionally resell his bandwidth. He will receive compensation for these resources and expenses ONLY when a guest buys a day pass at his hotspot. If the pass was bought elsewhere, and the guest roams onto his hotspot, he must still serve the bandwidth for Fon's vending.

    When a guest, called an "Alien", does pay $3 at your hotspot, for 24 hours of Fon wifi access, Fon will take 1/3 for "taxes and fees" even if these items do not apply in your country or to your non-partnered ISP. Fon aggressively refuses to explain who this money goes to, or in what amounts, and Customer Service responds with stonewalling and hostility when asked. Only the remaining 2/3 is "split", as Fon advertises, between Fon and Bill-Foneros. The Fonero's "half" is still held by Fon, without earning interest, until the balance exceeds $20. Then the Fonero may request a transfer via PayPal.

    Also, Fon is simply not a free wifi network!

    Guests may obtain 15 minutes of free wifi access by providing an email address, and watching a brief advertisement. These email addresses are not verified, but Fon still accepts them as valid "Alien" registrations. The text need only look like an email address to work. The same person may continue to cheat like this once a day, but this is due to a lack of security, not an intended feature. Fon's pay-by-SMS option also does not check to see if a guest is in a participating country, until after they have provided emails and personal information to register as an Alien. Fon has turned this "free trial" option into an email harvesting system, and is unwilling to fix it. Most Foneros have also registered multiple emails to test and see what the ad looks like, or to troubleshoot it when it does not work. Some of us create a new "Alien" account every week, to check on Fon's claims of membership growth. Everyone is assigned a member number which is generated sequentially.

    This brief free-to-try access certainly does not make Fon a "Free Wifi Network"! Fon's marketing staff have stretched this definition beyond the breaking point. Neither do Foneros have guarantees that they will find Fon hotspots to use while travelling, so the gratis roaming for contributing members is also uncompelling.

    Fon CEO Martin Varsavsky, has stated repeatedly and unambiguously in his blog, and in interviews, that Aliens are NOT members. He and Fon also make it clear that one must contribute a Fon hotspot in order to be titled "Fonero". Foneros may host more than one hotspot, and many of us do. Therefore, the total number of Foneros who have ever registered must clearly be slightly less than the number of Fon hotspots. However, Fon has been reporting all hotspots ever registered as "available", and also claiming that they somehow have far more Foneros than hotspots! This month, Fon now claims there are a million Foneros/ members/ community members, "more than 400,000" Fon hotspots (Fon Blog) or "almost 300,000" (Varsavsky's blog). This is both inconsistent, and unbelievable! And still they avoid admitting that more hotspots are now dead than remain available. I wish no harm to Fon, but I do demand honesty.

    My point in writing is to demonstrate how little is understood about how Fon works by people outside of Fon's long-term membership, and the perils of accepting Fon's claims without scrutiny. Fon is convoluted, and full of aspects where very important requisites are glossed over, and astonishingly odd definitions are applied to justify the truthiness of some feature or promise made by them.

    I encourage you and your readers to scratch beneath the surface. You can start by reading "My Fon Blog" and "El Fon Blog", which are written by non-employee members of Fon Wireless, Ltd.

  2. caphun at

    @austintx: Thank you for the insight into some of the politics surrounding FON. You certainly know more than me about this topic, I have no doubt about that and will certainly drop by your blog from time to time – Your comment is even longer than my entire article. Haha :)

    I agree, you must buy the La Fonero router and share your internet connection to benefit but it's a small price to pay for free and reliable wifi access on the move. That's really what I'm alluring to when I mention Free Wifi.

  3. While I personally support the idea of getting FON in, the practical issues I got limited me from doing that. FON router features are not comparable to a hacked DD-WRT router, I would personally prefer FON to release some kind of modded DD-WRT firmware that allow me to get the best of both worlds (keep all those powerful VLAN and Multi SSID in place) then I would definitely become an alien. In the past I have been using some mid range firewalls (ZyWall/D-Link DFL series) and indeed I am interested to share the bandwidth (which in return I could get free access) but finally its all due to the inflexible setup so far.