Fon expands its Wi-Fi sharing thanks to telcos

Fon office (Fon)
Fon's headquarters is based in Madrid, Spain. (Image: Fon)

Before there was Airbnb or Uber, the Spanish firm Fon set out on a mission to create a community Wi-Fi network that anyone could use. That's a goal that continues to be at the center of the company’s priorities even after celebrating its tenth anniversary last year.

The company now has 20 million hotspots as part of its shared system, thanks in part to partnerships it struck with telcos, mainly in Europe and Asia. Based in Madrid, Spain, Fon now has partnerships with about 20 operators around the world, including BT in the UK,  SFR in France, Deutsche Telekom in Germany, KPN in the Netherlands, Telstra is Australia, SoftBank in Japan, KT in South Korea, Vodafone in Spain and Italy and others.

In the U.S., Fon and AT&T struck a global Wi-Fi roaming agreement in 2013, but that’s mainly for AT&T customers who are traveling overseas. Fon continues to have ongoing discussions with U.S. operators and wouldn’t mind expanding its deal with AT&T, but so far, that’s the extent of it, according to Fon CEO Alex Puregger in a recent interview with FierceWirelessTech.

Alex Puregger Fon CEO (Fon)
Fon CEO Alex Puregger

Whereas companies like iPass specialize in aggregating Wi-Fi hotspots in areas used by the public, Fon has its roots in the residential market. Fon was founded in 2006 by serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky with the goal of blanketing the world with Wi-Fi. It has since grown beyond residential Wi-Fi and increased its footprint to locations like airports, convention centers, theaters, cafes and more. Investors include U.S. companies Microsoft (through Skype), Google and Qualcomm.

Last November, Fon announced a deal with Microsoft whereby customers can purchase Wi-Fi passes via the Windows Store, simplifying the process for those users. It’s part of Fon’s efforts to make Wi-Fi easier to use and more akin to a cellular-like roaming experience; those customers don’t need to log in every time they start a session or go to a different Fon hotspot.

Technologies like Hotspot 2.0, often referred to as Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint, are designed to make it easier to connect to Wi-Fi and roam as well, but Puregger said that’s not going to happen overnight as mobile phones also need to be compatible. It’s also not the only way to make the experience better, he said.

Puregger, who took the CEO reins from Varsavsky in 2015, said he believes there will be much better integration of Wi-Fi and non-Wi-Fi, or licensed, technologies in the future, and better ways of connecting to the best available network, whether it be Wi-Fi or cellular.

As for operator attitudes toward Wi-Fi, that certainly has changed since the early days of Wi-Fi, when operators either couldn’t care less about Wi-Fi or saw it as a threat. Now, with so much data traffic moving over Wi-Fi instead of cellular in homes and offices, operators increasingly want to offload traffic onto Wi-Fi where it makes sense. The situation might be slightly different in the U.S. because fewer operators are delivering service over a wider geographic area, but in Europe, there’s a sense of “bring it on” because they prefer high-definition video going over Wi-Fi wherever possible.

One trend Puregger sees is Wi-Fi getting more to do within the home. With virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, Wi-Fi increasingly is key to the connected home. “I think we as an industry will see a lot of things happening in that space,” he said.

Even after 10 years expanding the business, the basic idea behind Fon is the same. “We want everybody to be able to access every single hotspot ideally on the planet,” and every router to be a hotspot, rather than limiting it to one or two people with a password, he said. “There is a big desire by everybody around the Wi-Fi network not to be an island solution but to be part of something bigger.”