Router is Just $5, But You Have to Share WiFi

Spanish firm seeks to build a nationwide network on the cheap

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff

A Spanish Internet company is selling a million wireless Internet routers for just $5 each. But there's a catch: Buyers must share their wireless Internet connections with their friends, neighbors, or even total strangers. It's all part of a daring plan to create a nationwide WiFi network on the cheap.

"I think it's an idea whose time has come," said Juergen Urbanski, North American general manager of FON Technology S.L., of Madrid.

Today, finding WiFi access is a hit-or-miss affair. Starbucks coffee shops and McDonald's restaurants offer fee-based WiFi connections, and a growing number of cities are building municipal networks. Urbanski wants to recruit millions of ordinary people who would make WiFi available to anyone within range of the wireless routers in their homes.

People who join FON (pronounced 'phone') are eligible to purchase a new wireless router for $5, plus an $8 shipping fee. This router is programmed with software that lets other FON members connect to the router for free Internet access. The router also protects the owner's privacy by blocking access to any other data on his home computer network. If enough people join FON, they'll create a nationwide WiFi network, with free service to all FON members. The FON website features frequently updated maps showing where FON service is available.

FON will make money by charging nonmembers about $3 a day for access to the network. Half of this money goes to the FON member whose router is being used.

FON has already signed up over 60,000 users, including about 10,000 in the United States. But since standard WiFi routers have a very short range -- less than 300 feet -- the company must deploy millions of routers to create a truly comprehensive network.

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Monty Solomon
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