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Fon Flirts With Fonera FonPod Outdoor Router

December 15, 2008

Note: I meant to post this over the weekend, but I had to wait for issues with my bloghost to clear up.

After three years of intense demand, Fon CEO Martin Varsavsky is featuring a no-promises, not-in-production weatherized Fonera in his blog. This is perhaps out of envy for Meraki’s recent publicity for their tiny meshing APs and rugged solar-powered routers.

Here is Fon’s current concept of an outdoor wifi appliance:

[Click Us]

This device does not currently have an official name, but I like to call it “Fonera FonPod”. Isn’t that catchy? 🙂

I’m not wild about the design of this enclosure as presented. It’s a flattened box, about 50% larger than La Fonera 2. It seems large enough to house a flat-panel antenna, but that does not appear to be what Fon has in mind. The box splits vertically into front and back halves, and is held together with 10 visible screws. The front would appear to be white plastic with a honeycomb pattern which we have never seen associated with Fon until now. It’s probably another company’s production model with a “Fon” sticker pasted to the front. 😉

The top of the case has an antenna jack, and the bottom appears to have a compression port for admitting cables through an airtight seal. This would make FonPod the first Fonera which has the antenna opposite the cables. All previous models have had jacks and antennas together along the rear, making installation anywhere but a table or shelf awkward. Suprisingly, the rear of the enclosure appears to have three additional connections for WAN, LAN(!) and Power. These connections don’t appear to be weather-resistant, and if these are on the rear, the bottom connection becomes a mystery.

The appearance of LAN suggests that the Fonera inside is based on the Plus or 2.0 models. While a LAN jack would seem pointless for a device that will be installed in remote places, it might be useful for passing an Ethernet connection through to additional equipment, like another AP or a networked security camera. Availability of a USB jack would be useful for similar reasons, and probably enable the use of much cheaper hardware. I’ve been advocating the marketing of Fon routers to metro wifi and building managements for this reason. A simple instrument package could be plugged into such extra ports to provide traffic cams, triangulate gunshots and report weather and smog conditions. That added value could make Fon more attractive than Meraki for some large and wealthy markets.

Bear in mind that the device Fon proposes is still a router, not an access point. This is sort of overkill for the kind of work it will be doing. Let us pray that the LAN port is finally bridged, instead of senselessly NAT’ted. Fon would benefeit by outgrowing their tendancy to repurpose existing products by merely rewrapping them.

[Click Me]

The back of the case has some exposed mounting studs, apparently used to attach the hardware within, and the backplate dips up and down along the seam where other screws ring the perimeter. It would seem that the halves are clamped around a very large, vertically aligned gasket, and the plastic half is rather soft. Those screws are going to rust very quickly, and that sort of gasket is just not practical for long, leakproof life. There appears to be some mounting hardware inside the shipping box, but it is hard to tell whether FonPod must be attached to a pipe, a flat surface, or either. Since there is a (?)7dbi omnidirectional dipole antenna included, this mounting hardware probably does not provide pivoting azimuth for pointing a directional antenna.

I’d like to take a crack at designing a better enclosure, so here are some of my thoughts. For some of my inspiration, see the below photos of an actual ClearWire wireless broadband device deployed in markets like nearby Corpus Christi TX. Only twice the size of La Fonera 2, it is based on technology similar to WiMax, which will soon replace it. This particular device isn’t for outdoors, but rather sits vertically on a desk or shelf with one side facing the ClearWire tower. It integrates a large flatpanel antenna with a network device in the same package, and the case is basically a deep sleeve into which the electronics slide from below. If it was possible to seal this and make all connections through the bottom, it would make a decent outdoor enclosure.

[Click Us]

My concept of Fonera FonPod is an enclosure designed to resemble a 2x scale La Fonera Plus. It has an internal flatpanel antenna like Fontenna, and ships with Power over Ethernet (PoE) adapters. The mounting bracket should permit installation upon either vertical wall or pole, and feature adjustable angle of elevation. The case should be manufactured as a seamless PVC shell with the bottom having the only opening, through a recessed partition.

The partition would have a fitting to allow passage of 1-2 cables through a seal. The partition would have a gasket around it’s perimeter, and would have a framework mounted to it’s inner side. All internal components would be mounted to that framework so that they all slide in and out as though in a drawer.

[Click Us]

A standard La Fonera 1/+/2 would simply be inserted inside and attached to internal cables.

An optional kit would consist of a holder for a dozen or so standard rechargeable batteries, and include a simple voltage regulator, so that Fonera FonPod might be powered by sun or wind.

FonPod II, which might be a WiMax FonPod, would look nearly identical, but the flat panel antenna would be aimed at the WiMax base station and there would be a dipole wifi antenna pointing down from the bottom, or there could be a second flat panel antenna connected with a cable.

So, what do you folks think? Add your comments below, and feel welcome to include links to pics or diagrams of your own.

Fon Announces New Beta Tester’s Program

October 10, 2008

Those who complained before about Fon’s exclusive, invite-only Beta Testing programs will be happy with the new one. Or maybe not.

Anyone in France, Germany and Spain may join the Beta Tester’s program by purchasing a La Fonera 2.0 “Liberator” in the Fon Shop for €39.95 ($53.92) plus shipping. This new router is just like the 1-WAN 1-LAN La Fonera Plus, but also has an USB port in the back, and an additional LED on the front. Fon hopes you will contribute further to this project by developing support for additional devices, which they will perhaps certify and add to future firmware releases.

It is not clear what devices are currently supported, because if you read Martin Varsavsky’s blog carefully, he is saying that the USB port “could” support devices like USB hard drives and thumb drives, printers, scanners, and webcams. In fact, he admits that support for devices could be slow in coming, and that the use of a powered USB hub is reccommended. That’ll make quite a nest of cables when I winch my La Fonera 2 up on a pole outdoors!

The Fonosferatu “community” of developers has still not been organized, but Fon is certainly still hoping that Foneros will abandon such independant community projects as FreeWLAN and FrancoFon, and come together to work under Martin’s warm, guiding hand. Would you do it for a T-shirt? Martin has provided his wish-list of applications for Foneratus to work on, including the bittorrent application he mentioned when La Fonera 2 was announced back in EARLY JUNE, 2007.

Some things I like about the USB port is the possibility of using it as part of a home security system, when the router is mounted outside with a compatible webcam attached. I have written in the past about how metro wifi projects might like to purchase such routers which can have instrument packages added. This could include traffic monitoring cameras, weather and temperature monitoring, and even gunshot location using microphones and triangulation.

With wifi meshing enabled, city utilities could be measured remotely using devices attached directly to the meters on each home and business. The bandwidth may not be optimal for gaming, but any meter could still be directly interrogated within a few seconds. Energy-saving programs could use this network to shut off unneeded devices and adjust thermostats.

One goal that I think is important to work toward is in developing an USB-over-Ethernet driver, and abandoning development of multiple onboard drivers and services for LF2′s USB port. There are numerous open-source projects like USB Server, which let a PC mount an remote USB port over Ethernet, as though it were physically attached, though that port is elsewhere in the world. This is likely the best way to provide the most compatability and flexibility, while saving LF2′s precious resources for the wifi.

I am absolutely against using technology to further build out the police state many governments are hungry for, but you can see how devices like this can also be owned and used by the citizens for good purposes. For anyone that is interested, tomorrow is an international day of protest against surveillance; “Freedom Not Fear“. Please click the link to find activities in your area.

UPDATE: Only 1000 of these developer’s edition of La Fonera 2 will be sold, but if you’re one of the dozen or so busy Foneros who create an application which Fon actually likes, you could be reimbursed the cost of your router! Have Fon with that.

UPDATE: 10/23 Fon will now accept orders for the remaining La Fonera 2s from any country except Canada.

A Case Study of Fon and Meraki

July 18, 2008

Canadian researchers Catherine Middleton and Amelia Bryne Potter, have written a paper comparing the hardware, software and community aspects of Meraki Wireless Network with Fon Wireless, Ltd. Written in May of this year, it has been published on the Internet:
Is it Good to Share?(.pdf link) (Alternate Link)

The authors do not appear to have any links with either company, though Ms. Potter is a member of a community wireless research project. There are some very interesting points made about Fon, which echo ones made by myself and other outspoken Foneros over the last two years. There seems to be more criticism for Fon, but some of the comparison points might be a little unfair. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, or in this case, Meraki lime to Fon orange. 😉

Harvard Combines WiFi + Weather Monitoring

May 12, 2007

Harvard University and BBN Technologies are installing 100 sensors throughout Cambridge on a streetlight-mounted wireless network. The sensors will be in place by 2011 to monitor weather conditions and pollution in real-time. The sensors will draw their power from municipal electricity supplied to the lights, and are based on Linux running on some sort of embedded PC.

Read the article HERE.

This sounds a lot like meshed wifi APs built out of devices like certain Linksys, Buffalo, Meraki Mini and other routers. I’ve written about this in the past, in the context of ways Fon could have attracted interest in municipalities to use their devices for metro wifi. Such devices would have a spare Ethernet, serial or USB interface to attach an instrument package, and would aquire power from an induction clamp placed on suitable nearby lines (streetlights, overhead lines). The Internet or network connection would either be some kind of meshing scheme, or perhaps even Ethernet over Power Lines. Installation would take minutes.

The instrument packages would appeal to utilities, law enforcement and city planners alike. Some could couple with gas, electric and water meters to monitor resource useage in real-time. Sudden increases in demand could be investigated immediately, to find burst pipes before severe damage occurrs. The system could be two-way and allow the city to avoid brownouts by adjusting thermostats, or perhaps a homeowner can warm the house up remotely when leaving work for the day.

Law enforcement could attach gunshot detecting microphones (which I advocate) and remote cameras (which i’m actually not enthusiastic about) to help establish the locations of suspicious activity quickly. Homeowners could attach their private security systems, to watch their homes, or keep an eye on grandma, while away. Cameras are so cheap these days, there is no reason that private citizens can’t overtake law enforcement and watch the watchers for a change. Let us hope governments don’t pass new laws to “protect” us from these freedoms.

City planners can keep track of data on ozone and other pollutants, including noise levels. Weather agencies can benefeit from high-resolution maps of temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed measurements across the city.

While this particular network in Cambridge will only be for these 100 instrument packages, they may provide public hotspots in the future.

I recall a study I read about 10 years ago where it was determined that if the utility companies actually paid to install fiber optic cables directly to each home, to connect to the meters and read them remotely, they would break even some 3-6 years later just by eliminating the expense of manual meter reading. The study noted that the cables would be almost entirely idle, and could provide additional revenue by providing Internet service to customers. This potential revenue was not included in the study’s break-even point, but would obviously have paid for it much sooner.

The main problem was that noone in management was willing to propose, let alone commit, their company to a project that would place them in debt for any number of years. It is perhaps due to this typical corporate nearsightedness, that everyone in the USA doesn’t allready have fast FiOS Internet connections. While it may not be necessary for utilities to actually install FiOS in order to do something similar today, one wonders why with high-speed internet and wifi available just about everywhere now (heck, standard phone lines for dialup connections would be enough – most home security systems use them), they don’t install a $20 device to replace everyone’s meters and save billions of dollars