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The Five Stages of a Fon e-Movement

October 22, 2008

Preface: So the reader understands, the following is a summary of changes in direction which Fon has gone through since conception. This is not a parody nor wish-list. You may not have been aware of some of these former lives of Fon, but you can verify everything with your favorite search engine.

Stage 1) Distribute free Fon hotspot-for-VOIP-handset software, and build a community of volunteers who will run it on dedicated PCs, so that the public can save money on voice calls wherever such a (ad-hoc) Fon hotspot can be found. These are comparable to today’s femtocells, only they use wifi instead of rebroadcasting cellular frequencies, and are comparable to Fon’s experimental “FonSpot” software which is based on Linux. Fon to openly challenge monopolistic telco companies by selling cheaper services. Fon to profit by reselling Internet bandwidth donated by the volunteers.

Stage 2) Stage 1 plan fails to attract enough press or jump certain legal obstacles. Fon disavows it’s original plans, and remarkets the company as a community of volunteers who run Fon hotspots for PCs, with emphasis on the fairly obligatory “free roaming” feature offered to members. Changes the pronunciation of the company from “phone” to “fawn” and claim that they are named after the North African Fon Ethnic tribe. 😯 Ad-hoc-wifi PC software is dropped, and Fon is retooled as router firmware for popular wifi routers. Distribute free router firmware, and sell a supply of Linksys routers pre-flashed to get things moving. Official Launch of Fon as a Revolution, a Network, and a Community. The populist, community friendly facade permits Fon to attract fans and gloss over shortcomings in their membership terms and business plan. Most adoption takes place among techie hobbyists. The Press applauds.

Stage 3) Stage 2 plan fails to establish sustainable market for wifi sales, and Fon never explores whether it is their terms, their price point, or their chosen market which is at fault. Linksys routers ran out of stock. Product partnerships failed due to Fon’s exaggerated promises, creative alternate definitions and numerous unmentioned conditions. Member churn is high, because the Fon program does not keep their interest* long enough, and the routers are very easy to improve with better firmware (designed by an disgruntled ex-Fon developer). Fon invests literally no resources on the “revolution” or “community” aspects of their network, unless it makes a good soundbyte for the press. After an extended period of inactivity, during which the Fonero Community nearly completely dies away, Fon begins replacing the old open-source routers with a proprietary one. In key areas, a supply of those routers is given away or sold at cost, to encourage rapid growth of the Network. Most adoption now takes place among newbies, people who need a cheap wifi solution but did not read the fine print, and others who are far less likely to be dedicated to something because they weren’t asked to really invest in it. The Press applauds loudly. Fon now to profit from router sales, and by inflating the value of the company for eventual resale.

Stage 4) Stage 3 plan fails to generate sufficient nor permanent network growth. Proprietary routers prove to be hackable, but most owners simply discard them now when they lose interest*. Fonero Community, which Fon has failed to establish a relationship with, and has little influence over, is reaching out to The Press independantly. Foneros have studied and analyzed Fon’s TOS now, and are growing increasingly unhappy. Fon focuses on profitable router sales, and actively conceals statistics which reveal real growth, churn, and actual service availability. Fon diverts resources to non-wifi related gimmicks and side projects, neglecting the usage complaints and bug reports from the members. Fon to perhaps profit from side projects, when they become independant companies, by bleeding Fon for research & development resources, thus saving them expenses.

Stage 5) Fon forges “partnerships” with other wifi networks by granting “free roaming” for their members, to the whole network of Fon hotspots. These roaming agreements are typically one-way, free only for the partners, and the rest are subject to many conditions for the Fon members. “Partner” hotspots are quickly added to Fon’s census to suggest rapid and healthy growth. Everything is marketed as “good for Fon”, as it is suggested that members of the public are more likely to purchase a Fon router of their own if they are aware of the Fon concept. Emphasis is placed on “network growth”, but this is measured primarily by router purchases now. Fon claims to operate openly, but has never revealed statistics on day pass transactions, repeat sales, or membership churn. Fon continues to profit up-front from router sales, and continue to craft clever statistics to make the company seem more healthy. Fon still reports no churn, and the available figures strongly suggest that they are deliberately ignoring it. Fon CEO and Fon PR contradict each other’s growth statistics, but both suggest that Fon will cease operating at a loss by the end of 2009. Fon to profit if there is a buyer after that point?

Fon claims to have gained it’s one millionth “member”, using a brand new definition of such, and stretching that to a rather wide interpretation. Only a small handful of blogs reported this event. The Press at large ignored it.

*Foneros lose interest for various reasons, including: attracting too few customers, being unable to find hotspots to roam onto, unanswered questions about Fon’s legality, doubts about Fon’s security, objections to Fon’s membership and profitsharing conditions, incompatability with Fon’s router hardware/firmware, other hardware failures, discovering that they were unable to expand an existing LAN on a budget as hoped, or other reasons which Fon did not live up to their expectations.

I have left out a few twists and turns, because they either didn’t last very long, or didn’t result in signifigant change in Fon’s growth, method of operation, or culture. It would be an interesting excercise to draw up an academic timeline of Fon events and announcements, with references, and emphasis on points of contradiction. As for La Fonera 2 and Fonosferatu; we shall see. At the moment, I fear that they are just time-killers to make the company look lively until it recovers or gets sold. Fon has time on it’s hands now, and has those expensive La Fonera+’s to unload. The Linksys are gone, the La Fonera 1.x are probably running low, and there are only 1000 La Fonera 2’s. Fon is still relatively idle. Even their directors and developers are starting to wander into the message board now, looking for amusement.

So in a nutshell, Fon has clearly been sailing for a long time without anyone with a firm grip at the helm. The exaggerations and eroding credibility began quite early on. Fon has lost passengers and officers at every port, and Fon’s final destination changed frequently, with little regard for the remaining passengers. Fon hopes to pay for the cruise by selling the passenger’s belongings, and eventually the ship. 🙁

Interestingly, Fon CEO Martin Varsavsky has begun to carefully admit that Fon isn’t doing so well these days. He’s blaming it on the pending economic collapse, of course. However, we know that Fon has been showing signs of floundering and rebooting for a long time now. The layoffs Martin frequently mentions in the present-tense actually happened months ago. If the economy was strong, Fon would be doing just as bad, but still pretending things were rosy.


Meeting Ex-Foneros

September 29, 2008

or “I See Dead Foneros”

This is a digest of the thread I started in Fon’s English Board.

There are about 102 Fon hotspots within the Austin, TX metro area. I recently noticed that nearly every Fon hotspot in the south side of the city is now dead, so on Saturday, 9/20 I took a bike tour of dead hotspots to see if I could lend some assistance, or aquire some unwanted routers:

(Click image for full size popup)

I really wanted to do this earlier, but it has been an unbearably hot summer in ATX. I made it a priority when I saw the sudden loss of so many hotspots at once. There is another cluster of dead hotspots I could visit across the freeway East of me, but those are mostly apartments with transient students. Probably not worth the effort. I did not bring a laptop or wifi detector with me. Perhaps I will survey the remaining live hotspots another time.

Half of the hotspot profiles from Fon’s Maps displayed “kasdfgdflkasdf” addresses, or had valid addresses which should not have placed them on this side of town. These were skipped, of course.

Two hotspots were at apartment buildings, and one person was not at home, but I left fliers for them to contact me. The apartment dwellers hadn’t actually indicated their door numbers, so I left the fliers on public bulletin boards. They haven’t gotten in touch with me in 7 days, so I don’t think they ever will.

I did meet 3 very nice people, and had chats with them about Fon. All of the Foneros needed a moment to remember what “a Fon hotspot” was when I asked them about it. I let them know immediately that I was not a Company Representative, just a neighbor. This made them visibly less apprehensive. 😀

My closest Fonero neighbor never used wifi, but had left her router plugged in. She didn’t know it was dead. It needed to be reset, and the hotspot came back on the map. Today, I noticed that her hotspot is dead again, and it’s position on the map has been moved well away from her house. Her address has also been erased from the profile. It appears that she doesn’t want to meet any more Foneros. 🙁

One man said that he unplugged his router because no Aliens ever visited it, and his girlfriend no longer needed it for her laptop. He said it was now in storage, but he would consider passing it on if he found it. He also believed that it was causing some kind of conflict with his LAN, but wasn’t able to recall further details. They now have a U-Verse DSL modem with integrated wifi.

The other man said that someone was leeching so much bandwidth from him, that he had to pull the cord. He had forgotten where the router was, if he still had it, but promised to pass it on if it turned up.

The two men who intentionally quit had totally opposite reasons; hotspot used too much / hotspot not visited at all, so i’m not sure what facts i’ve nailed down for the purposes of my brief investigation. Overall, Foneros simply lose interest in Fon and can quit without feeling like they have lost anything. Nor are there any consequences – in fact, they may feel more secure with the Fon hotspot shut down.

Fon still counts them as active members, unless they email unsubscribe@fon.com, of course. Fon makes money selling merchandise and has a small side business reselling access to other people’s ISP service. I suspect Fon rarely, if ever, refunds money or subtracts dead hotspots and quitted members from their census, so there is little consequence for them, either.

I left everyone my name, phone number and email address. Interestingly, all three of the people I met happened to be DSL customers, and used Macintoshes.

So here’s the results of my investigation:

  • Total Fon hotspots in Austin, TX: about 102 (per Yoshida’s Fon Map)
  • Total active Fon hotspots in ATX: about 14 (per Fon Maps 9/28)
  • Fon hotspots visited: 6
  • Foneros met: 3
  • Assistance provided: 1
  • Routers aquired: 0
  • Net Foneros reactivated: 0

I’ve tried messaging Foneros through the Fon Maps feature, but this does no good because it is not forwarded to their email. It just goes to their “My Fon” bulletin board, which they never see if they have given up on Fon and never log in again.

I’m not sure where to take this forward from here. I could ask my readers what Fon could do to win Foneros back, but why should Fon bother? Fon has their clever numbers, and reserve the right to invent clever definitions. Fon has been maintaining convienient untruths, and probably don’t have the initiative to come clean now. Besides, with Fon in their spam-filters, or free email addresses abandoned, dead Foneros will never receive another ping from the Movement they left behind. The Press won’t even touch Fon now.

I could ask what Foneros could do to win Foneros back, but I don’t want to encourage a gestapo movement, knocking on doors and demanding explanations. I don’t think anyone was upset that I visited them, but there was a moment each time, where I thought I saw them thinking “oh no, I was afraid this would happen”. Noone was interested in rejoining the scene. They were polite, but pointedly disengaged from the subject. The routers were “somewhere, perhaps”, but while noone wanted to use them, neither did they wish to release them.

Possibly, leaders in various cities could publicise campaigns to collect unwanted routers for redistribution, but again, Fon dare not admit that they have any churn or waning momentum. I will redistribute any routers I may eventually collect, but I don’t have the resources to start or maintain anything formal. Perhaps if it was a paid position, I could make it a part-time job on the weekends, eh? 😉

I look forward to your comments.


A Million Times, NO.

September 11, 2008

I could have guessed this was coming on September 8th, when Fon’s English board moderator, David Garcia started using this graphic in his signature line.

It seems that Fon Wireless, LTD., who forgot to observe their own second birthday, is celebrating the induction of their One Millionth Fonero, Wilkinson-Chan of Japan.

Today, Fon CEO Martin Varsavsky’s blog, and Fon’s own English blog announced that Fon now has one million “Foneros”, “members” or “community members”, depending on whether you read the title or the text of the posts.

Oddly, Martin claims that Fon has “nearly 300,000” active Fon hotspots, while Fon’s blog says “over 400,000”. I’ve taken screen shots gentlemen, so there’s no point in covering your tracks now. 😉

So why am I a skeptic? It’s those numbers. They just don’t add up the way they ought to. Let’s review Fon Math again, and take note of authoritative sources of Fon definitions.

One Million Foneros. One Million Members. OK, all Foneros are members, and all members are Foneros, this is true. “Community Members” is perhaps a broader term; it could include forum posters who have not registered as an Alien nor Fonero, and this inclusion raises my eyebrows.

The first step to joining Fon is to register your email address and choose a password. This can be done at a Fon hotspot, or on Fon’s home page. This makes you an Alien, who can pay for wifi access, or use your registered identity to order Fon merchandise.

Martin Varsavsky says that once an Alien registers and contributes a Fon hotspot, he becomes a Linus or Bill Fonero, who can roam for free on other Fonero’s hotspots worldwide. (Also, he says that we must buy his La Fonera router to provide that hotspot.) This means that the number of Foneros, or members, cannot be larger than the number of Fon hotspots ever registered.

In fact, it will always be less, because some Foneros host more than one hotspot, and a very small number of discouraged Foneros will go to the trouble of unsubscribing from Fon via the formal, manual process. Here we have a problem, since Fon and Martin are saying now that the number of Foneros is far larger than the number of Fon hotspots.

So what is *not* a member? Martin Varsavsky has been quoted repeatedly and unambiguously, stating that Aliens are not members, and therefore, not Foneros. Here we have another problem, if it is true that 1,000,000 Fonero members, which does not include Aliens, have somehow joined Fon when there are only 300K-400K hotspots.

Please, Fon. It is time to turn off the reality distortion field. We know you are including Aliens in these counts, and this includes every bogus email address entered at a Fon hotspot to get 15 free trial minutes. We know that Fon is not free, just because it offers a brief trial connection, and roaming for contributing members. We know that more Fon hotspots have been registered, and been dead for months or years, than there remain live ones. And we know this still doesn’t even total a million.


Swisscomm dumps Starbucks in Spain

July 9, 2008

All over Spain, including Madrid and Alcobendas (HQ of Fon), Wireless Citizens are finding that they can no longer log into Swisscomm wifi at their favorite Starbucks!

Isn’t this is a good opportunity for the “World’s Biggest Wifi Community” to take a shot at replacing them? Lucky Bills near these coffeehouses may allready be seeing increased profits.

Now, Starbucks doesn’t want people hanging out in the shop all day, without buying drinks and snacks. Though Fon promotes the idea of “$€3/day”, they also have proven that there is no problem implimenting “15 free minutes”, “60 minutes via SMS” and “5-day passes” as alternatives.

Bill Foneros have urged Fon to impliment a “voucher” system in the past. I think the time has arrived for Fon to impliment such a system for merchants who use Fon! :)

Merchants could print out a sheet full of voucher codes once a day, through a special MyFon page, and cut them into separate slips of paper. These vouchers would supply an hour or two of wifi, and be useable for 24 hours from the time of creation. Starbuck’s patrons would each create a Fonero account, and then enter their voucher code as payment. Fon could reward “frequent flyers” with Starbucks coupons or other benefeits.

Starbucks might pay Fon a small amount for each voucher which gets used, and Fon would share half of the net profits with Starbucks, just like with Bills. Publicity for both partners would be very good if this plan works out! :)


Why have so many Foneros abandoned Fon?

April 4, 2008

Fon President Martin Varsavsky has posted an adorable leetle survey on his blog today. Either he has no idea why Fon is failing under his leadership, or else he knows, and won’t list those reasons because he has no intention of fixing them.

The reason most Foneros have quit Fon is due to anemic equipment and firmware imposed upon them, and the culture of dishonesty in Fon’s press releases and business practices.

After promising to give us firmware which supported dual-SSIDs, Fon switches the bait and presents us with their proprietary, locked-down 1-port router with this feature. No dual-SSID for us Linksys and Buffalo Foneros. It’s just as well, because it turns out that many wifi adapters can’t cope with the little transmission trick that produces two SSIDs.

People with pre-existing home networks discover that they can’t access their LAN resources, even when using the private WLAN. There is no “bridge to WAN” feature. This device *looks* like an AP, but is instead a NAT router. This is one of the main reasons people abandoned Fon. They didn’t want to *start* a network. They needed to *expand* one (and on a budget).

This little overheating brick had WDS meshing built-in at first, but this was undocumented. Hackers learned to use it to aquire an Internet connection without paying or logging in. Fon quickly took WDS out, and has still never admitted it existed. Pres. V pontificates in his blog that the range-extending Fontenna (he sells) is superior to connection-relaying meshing, despite the poor performance of said Fontenna. He should have instead sold us a kit to mount the router outside, with an embedded booster antenna and PoE adapter.

Nearly two years later, La Fonera still doesn’t support MAC cloning, which is such a trivial feature to add. It is necessary for modems/ISPs which lock your service to your WAN MAC. This is another big reason people abandoned Fon- they never got it connected to the Internet. This feature wouldn’t even threaten the sales of additional Fon hardware. :(

Instead of improving the La Fonera firmware (except to rush out patches to keep people from aquiring better access to their device and developing new features), Fon spends R&D on further routers: Want one precious LAN jack? Buy the new router, at twice the price of the old one! This is surely why they don’t give us WAN bridge in the original La Fonera for free.

What would Foneros really prefer that Fon focus their attention on? Bringing the feature set of the router at least up to the point of every other cheap router on the market, nurturing and empowering the creative community that has built up around Fon, and showing some real progress for a change. Instead, here is “La Fonera Orwellian Name”, for $100, which lets you download free bittorrents of Fearless Leader’s video clips. Ugh.

“Buy thees Skype phone and make calls for free at any Fon hotspot in the world!” they said. Well, sure- if you had the encryption key for all of those Fonero’s private networks. The darn thing wasn’t able to log in through Fon’s public hotspot, until many months later, when a firmware patch was provided. Calls were then free if they were Skype-to-Skype, or you were spending the included “free” 20 trial Skypeout minutes. Skype pulled the ads down. Ugh.

“We split the profits 50-50!”. An outright lie. First, Fon takes unspecified “fees and taxes” out, then splits what is left. Fon refuses to itemize this amount, which varies from country to country and depends on the ISP, so there is no way to tell if they are paying you fairly. Fon only pays Bills if their hotspot is the Point Of Sale for day passes, not for bandwidth, length of wifi sessions, or number of customers. If paid-up customers wander over to his hotspot, Bills get nothing for the service he provides.

Fon’s price per day is quite reasonable when compared to other for-pay mobile Internet services. However, wifi is free in virtually every coffee shop in the USA, many restaurants and libraries, and provided by many municipalities throughout the city centers. Fon won’t budge on the price, or add something to make their service more desireable than free wifi, like VPN encryption.

Fon’s system mimics other “instant hotspot in-a-box” offerings, but these competitors are offering more flexible terms in setting prices and managing equipment. The competitors let you have control of your Internet connection, your router, and the appearance of your hotspot to the public. Fon pretends that they do too, but in reality, you have almost no control over what they clearly consider to be *their* router, and *their* hotspot.

It’s been obvious in recent months that Fon is fading away. Varsavsky spends his time supporting side projects, which have nothing to do with wifi (Mexican Wave, Fon URL Sortener, and several ways to abuse Gmail), and writing bizzare articles in his Fon Blog. Varsavsky recently dumped much of his Fon stock.

Fortunately, there is a thriving community of hackers who still develop improvements for La Fonera wifi routers. If a Fonero is willing to void his router’s warranty, he can have his MAC cloning, WAN bridge and much more. While they can do nothing about Fon’s awful profit-sharing, the routers themselves can even be flashed with entirely different firmware, and be used with other wifi networks, or even liberated entirely, including features usually found only in very expensive equipment.

There are so many other points, I could write volumes. Please visit Varsavsky’s blog, and instead of taking his survey, leave him comments which surely will fall outside his carefully selected choices.

UPDATE: Y’all will find this very interesting. Martin approved another round of comments to that post in his blog. While he approved a comment I made under a fake name, he did not approve a more coherent comment I made, as myself, discussing the exact same points, somewhat earlier that day. This is not proper management of his blog, this is censorship of those whom he dislikes. What a skunk!


Fon Lake Dump Protest in El Reg

June 29, 2007

The Register writes today about the ongoing protest against Fon’s 15-minute free Internet promotion. As usual, they don’t really know what Fon is; they think Fon is a VOIP company. KenRadio thinks Fon is a meshing router. Boingo thinks they’ve added 130,000 new hotspots through their partnership with Fon. Whatever.

Fon does not verify the emails given for free access, and this is the only “identification” required for free access. Additionally, the promotion was sprung on the Fonero Community without warning, fully activated and without debate. Fon President Martin Varsavsky wrote in his blog that trivial details like how much Bills would be compensated, and how Foneros could opt-out would be provided later, but there still is no mechanism provided to do this. Perhaps we need to email support@fon.com and wait the usual 2 weeks, etc.

In response, Fon makes the orange “Alien” icons vanish from Fon Maps. These had been used by Foneros to spell out messages on Fon’s maps, just north of their headquarters. These icons were automatically placed where Aliens lived, and were not opt-out (though you could manually misplace them to protect your privacy). A year of complaining to Fon about privacy was fruitless; a moment of embarassment while the Press watched seems to have suceeded.

ADDITION: BlogWiMAX has picked up on the story.

ADDITION: NewsWireless.Net has picked up on the story.

ADDITION: Wireless-Weblog has picked up on the story.


Please look away!

June 25, 2007

Just an ordinary lake! Move along!

(click on the pictures for more information)

Look! Watch the funny man!

Nothing to see here. Keep moving.

Haha, it’s the silly man again! Which is all you find in *official* Fon blogs this week!

Still not getting the message!

Wow, all of those light-green dots are *offline* hotspots! How can this be, when they are right there at Fon Headquarters? And it looks like a lot of homeless Aliens (orange dots) are camped out among the trees along the highway. Or is this Martin’s army of homeless Bills who provide wifi for VOIP calls throughout the city?