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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!