Any questions for Martin Varsavsky?

Martin Varsavsky is the founder and CEO of FON (as well as being the founder of highly successful companies such as Viatel, Jazztel and Ya.com). FON is a community of people who share WiFi. If you sign up with FON you share your WiFi broadband access at home/work and you get free access to other FON points wherever they exist.

FON announced last night that it has just raised €18 million from Google, Skype, Index Ventures and Sequoia Capital. This puts FON in a very enviable position – they have partnerships with some of the biggest names in the business, they have money and they have a cool mission (WiFi Internet Access Everywhere).

I will be interviewing Martin Varsavsky this afternoon for a podcast on PodLeaders.com – if you have any questions you’d like me to put to him, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

UPDATE:
I have now conducted the interview and I published it over on PodLeaders. Unfortunately, having been promised a 30 minute interview by email, Martin cut off the interview after 4 minutes; so needless to say, I didn’t get to ask nearly as many questions as I would have liked. Apologies to those of you who took the trouble to leave questions.

18 thoughts on “Any questions for Martin Varsavsky?”

  1. tom,
    i’d be interesting to see how FON differs from linspire, which tried to build a wi-fi co-operative a few years ago.

    cheers, mark

    p.s. good interview scoop, by the way!

  2. It would have been even better if i had read my mail last night – I had the opportunity to interview Martin last night before he boarded his plane to San Francisco (around 10:30 GMT) but i didn’t read my email until after he had boarded – d’oh!

    Thanks for the question – I’ll be sure to put it to him.

  3. Looking forward to the interview Tom, here are my questions.

    – how is FON handeling the linksys decision to close the wrt54g router from running openWRT?

    – any plans on implementing a ratio-quota-system similar to what some bittorrent tracker uses on? Or is the network limited to share some bandwidth and you will get unlimited back.

    – skype is a obvious hit in this context, what other service can benefit from a FON-enabled landscape?

    – ho are you keeping track on where you can get a FON-network?

    thanks,
    Gustaf

  4. My question for Martin is about Italian market. Some Italian bloggers and I have just had a discussion by email with Martin about some legal problems with FON in Italy.

    We have a very strong anti-terrorism law which involved wireless internet connection. If you have a Wi-Fi hot spot you must authenticate the user with a copy of him ID, you must log all the activities made (website visited, email sent, …).

    The other problem is with Italian Internet Provider, in many cases you can not “resell� the band you buy (also for free).

    Thanks and my compliments to Martin and FON!!!!

  5. Apologies for that Luca – I wasn’t aware of those issues in the Italian market and those would have made for very interesting questions (had i been given the time to ask them!).

    Thanks for stopping by to leave the questions – check back for my next interview (I usually publish two a week) and I’ll try to get your questions in.

    Cheers,

    Tom.

  6. Hi everybody, this is Antoin, I’m an adviser at FON. I’m really sorry Martin couldn’t stay on the interview longer, he was very sorry, a bunch of stuff piled up.

    I am happy to attempt to answer Marc’s, Gustav’s, Patil’s and Luca’s very good questions though.

    1. Linksys position on FON routers: I hope you will understand that I am not in a position to comment on the Cisco/Linksys long-term strategy. You would need to ask Cisco/Linksys about that. It is true that Linksys have brought out a non-Linux version of the WRT54G router. The reason for this appears to me to have to do with the manufacturing cost. Basically, the extra RAM and processing power required for Linux (compared to a specialised embedded OS) drives the cost up.

    However, Linksys also sells a special variant, the WRT54GL (http://www.linksys.com/servlet/Satellite?childpagename=US%2FLayout&packedargs=c%3DL_Product_C2%26cid%3D1133202177241&pagename=Linksys%2FCommon%2FVisitorWrapper) which is Linux-based.

    There are also a number of other, though less well-known linux router manufacturers. (As I understand it, all of these linux routers are based on a reference firmware produced by Broadcom, but I am open to correction on this.)

    2. Ratio quota. The amount of your bandwidth which is shared is controlled by the firmware to stop your line being swamped. But in terms of a hard quota system to control how much a fonero uses the system, there is no specific immediate plan to do that at the moment although we are keeping an eye on the issue. Being fair to people who contribute a lot is something we are thinking about.

    I would like to say that FON is at the beginning of its development, not the end. The technical team are working hard on making the software better. FON will develop the software and the infrastructure to meet the needs that arise. Thanks to the current round of funding, FON now has the resources now to do this.

    3. other services apart from Skype. Well, that’s quite a question. There are an uncountable number of applications that could use wi-fi everywhere! The possibilities are really endless.

    4. Keeping track of where to get on the FON network: check out http://maps.fon.com/ , which is based on Google Maps.

    5. Interests of Google and Skype apart from financial investment: Here’s what Skype say themselves – http://share.skype.com/sites/en/2006/02/skype_invests_in_fon_to_increa.html

    6. Sharing ISP bandwidth under contract in Italy: this is a common issue in many countries and one FON is dealing with. See http://blog.fon.com/en/archive/technology/working-with-the-isp.html for example. I generally talk to an ISP every week or two to discuss FON and my own experience with ISPs has been that they are receptive to the idea. There are real benefits for the ISPs – their product becomes more useful and attractive; they gain a means of staying abreast with 3G operators (and maybe later, Wimax operators); it gives their offering an international aspect. They get a revenue share. All this can be achieved by them without capital investment.

    7. Italian anti-terror law. I honestly don’t know the law or the situation in Italy, but someone else in FON may know the answer. I have previously researched this topic and my own feeling is that the laws in this area are becoming quite harmonized in the European Union as a result of the directive which passed the European Parliament on 18 January 2006 (I should say that I was not in favour of this legislation myself and opposed it through Digital Rights Ireland of which wearing another hat, I am a director.) There is a lot of detail to be considered with these data retention laws and it seems to be far from clear exactly what is covered by them at this stage. If anyone has any detailed experience with how the Italian law is actually being implemented, I would be interested to hear about it. My own feeling is that a FON user is much more likely to be compliant with these laws than a person who simply leaves their hotspot open.

    8. The Linspire cooperative. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Linspire specifically, so maybe the following comments don’t answer the question. However, I know there have been a number of other efforts in this area, commercial and free/cooperative. Martin and the FON people have spent a lot of time thinking about them.

    My opinion, for what it’s worth is that the difference between FON and other efforts is that FON is a good blend a commercial and a free-volunteer model in a way that is fair and beneficial to all. It’s worth spending some time thinking about the linux-bill-aliens model (http://en.fon.com/help/faq.php and http://english.martinvarsavsky.net/fon/bill-donat-worry-about-linusesa.html) . This is a business that can bring a lot of benefits to the community and make money. (That’s why myself and people like Ethan Zuckerman and David Weinberger are involved in it. We also have a strong confidence in Martin’s ability to bring this dream to life.)

  7. I may not have been as clear as I should have been when I said I’ve researched the topic of anti-terror law, I mean that I have read a lot and talked to a lot of people about this type of laws generally, in an overall European context. I don’t have the specialized knowledge of the Italian situation. The European directive which I referred to is not in force as of yet. So I have to warn that my answer about this is not definitive and is my personal opinion rather than FON’s opinion.

  8. Antoin,

    thanks for answering those questions – if you have the time, here are some of the questions I was going to put to Martin:

    Martin, first off can you tell our audience who is Martin Varsavsky, what is your background?

    FON – what is FON?

    You made a big announcement yesterday – can you tell us about that?

    What does Google/Skype get out of this deal?

    Don’t most ISPs have ToCs which prevent you from sharing your bandwidth?

    Speakeasy – is the only U.S. Internet provider that officially lets you share your connection – isn’t it telling that they are the only US ISP you have a deal with?
    It has since emerged that Martin was, at the very least stretching the truth, when he said FON had a deal with Speakeasy.

    Security – what if someone is browsing child porn or downloading/uploading mp3s from your wireless hotspot – how will I be able to prove that I didn’t do this, that it was someone using my network?

    There was an interesting comment by Julian Bond on David Weinbergers blog:

    combining this with mesh networking. Imagine a street with 5 Wifi hostpots 3 of which are connected to 3 broadband lines. Now link them all together with a mesh protocol and aggregate the broadband.

    Is this something FON would contemplate doing?

    Gary Price on SearchEngineWatch posited the following idea, would FON be open to it –

    Would Google considering offer those who run FON routers the chance to make extra cash via localized Google advertising that’s delivered to users who are are receiving WiFi bandwidth from a FON router?

    Can you comment on the following quotes from the New York Times piece on your story, first:

    The biggest problem is they are expecting way too much out of a low-power Wi-Fi access point, With the fancy antennas, they may have success converging coverage areas across dense apartments, but not suburban houses and certainly not cities.

    ” said Ron Sege, president and chief executive of Tropos Networks, a maker of Wi-Fi network infrastructure gear.

    And now can you comment on this quote, also from the New York Times:

    It’s an interesting idea, but there is a big privacy drawback and it will be a hit-and-miss network with no quality of service standards

    ,” said Michael Kleeman, a telecommunications industry network expert who was the architect of the Cometa nationwide network.

    Obviously several other questions would have come up in response to answers Martin gave had he completed the interview – unfortunately now, we won’t get to ask those questions.

  9. I will do my best to answer the questions.

    What is FON? Fon is wi-fi sharing, fair and square. It’s allowing you to bring the convenience and economy of wi-fi sharing at home with you wherever you go.

    The announcement yesterday? I’ve written before about what I think it means. http://www.eire.com/2006/02/05/fon-partners-with-google-and-skype-raises-major-funding/

    There are also links there to what other people associated with fon have said.

    Martin has also written about it (http://english.martinvarsavsky.net/fon/a-dream-come-true.html)

    I’m afraid I can’t speak for what Google and Skype get out of the deal other than what I’ve said above. I could say more, but it would really just be speculation. You will really have to ask them.

    ISP terms and conditions re sharing. Yes, this is a good point. It is something we are working on. As I said above, I think this will resolve itself.

    However, one thing I would say. Please support FON in this. We are trying to do something fantastic here, but we can’t do it alone. We need your support. We believe that sharing wi-fi is good for consumers and we need consumers to make their views clear if they agree.

    And just to be clear, the reason for sharing wi-fi is not to rip off the ISPs. The point is to make ISP services more valuable. To be a Linus and benefit from free roaming, you have t have a broadband Internet connection.

    Re Speakeasy, this is a fuss about nothing. Speakeasy are not our partner and I don’t think Martin actually said they were. But some journalists inferred that, maybe justifiably, but incorrectly. I don’t think it is fair to say that Martin was ‘stretching the truth’. It is still the case that Speakeasy have no problem with what we are doing re wi-fi sharing.

    Re future development plans for meshes and localised advertising. I really can’t discuss future plans, sorry. But keep the good ideas coming!

    Re comments from Ron Sege of Tropos networks. Certainly, we need the support of local people and local communities to get blanket coverage in a community. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that we could get a sufficient proportion of households and business to become foneros to be able to provide coverage in most areas. I would be interested to hear what your readers think about this.

    Re comments of Michael Kleeman about privacy and quality of service standards. Our system has a big cost advantage over traditional telecomms networks and that needs to be taken into account when you consider the other points Michael makes. I can’t understand what exactly the privacy drawback is. Telecommunications networks are not considered secure in general – you are expected to add your own encryption layer to protect your content.

    No mobile wireless network in the world (at least that I know of) provides a QoS guarantee or even a continuity of service guarantee! The best assurance of service that FON (or any mobile company) can offer is to have lots of separate but interconnected base stations.

    Let me say something again: FON can’t do it alone, we need your help! Please, become a fonero if you can. For sure, do it for the free wi-fi sharing. But even if you don’t travel much, please get a FON router and sign up. Do it because we are trying to do something great and because by working together we can do something exciting, positive and sustainable.

    So here’s my pitch: if you have a linksys wrt54g router, please go to http://www.fon.com and give FON a try. If you don’t please buy a router (http://en.fon.com/shop/get-your-fon-router.php) and try FON out. And let us know how you get on through our discussion boards (http://boards.fon.com/) or through blogs.

    Best,

    Antoin.

  10. Hi, I some words to say (not negative, just realistic)

    I am a joint founder and director of a MESH wireless network operator, Internet provider and VoIP operator in the South of Spain. We are building the infrastructure in the areas where connectivity is poor or non-existent and we are delivering a range of home/business services to the huge popluation of people that have no hope from the incumbent or 2nd level players.

    We already have hotspot and free roaming capability from within our technology but the service is not fully developed or a real commercial offering (it needs more work, which is not our core focus). We are currently investigating various options from different HotSpot enabling companies (AirNet, FON, SputNik, etc) to integrate someone-else service to enable the large tourist population to pay-to-use our network, whilst we focus on connecting the permanent residents and businesses.

    I actually met with FON last week in Madrid and I explained our plans, our MESH network roll-out and the simple fact that about 50% of Europe is currently un-connected and very likely to remain that way until WISPs or MAN operators like us are able to build the networks out to deliver the last mile and offer the internet connection. Something that the traditional companies cannot or will not do for economic reasons and something the polititians seem just to turn a blind eye towards (bless them).

    I didn’t see much comprehension or focus from FON going towards the “currently unconnected” population in Spain or Europe.

    My personal view on FON is, like Skype, a very nice social message (free internet and telephone calls for everyone) but the knock-on effects to the telecommunications ecosystem are not good – nothing is free and basic business law suggests that to be free other costs occur i.e. no profit = no money for capacity (affecting quality), no profit = no money to cover business overheads, which = redundancies in the workforce (affecting customer services and other lifestyle issues of the employee), etc.

    Does the customer really want a free, low quality internet connection or does the customer really want a reliable and suitable service to enable them to communicate – whatever their application or media?

    Already, internet users are demanding more capacity and are staying on-line longer, which is disrupting the “busrty� user model of ADSL and the economic model of traditional ISPs.

    Specifically, I am not convinced that many ISPs will pay the infrastructure/business costs necessary to make FON successful … but I could be wrong. Without the operators and/or ISP’s support then FON will not be able to achieve their very ambitious goals and their business model will not stack-up. Almost all ISP’s that I have been involved with (and ourselves now) will not allow the customer to share their connection and will not allow free users to consume the network bandwidth. If there is a revenue share model that supports FONs case, where the operator’s administration and infrastructure costs are covered, then the operators will open the doors … but then that will put FON back into the very competitive HotSpot operator space, where companies like the Cloud are very well established.

    So, is FON something good for the internet ecosystem (customer, operator, investor, etc)? That really depends on the customer not being so demanding, the operators investing more money into the internet infrastructures and the investors being ok with the idea that they will not see any profits this year.

    I leave you with these thoughts … also we could connect some many more deserving, ignored and willing-to-pay customers with the $21m received from Googie and Skippy but hey, we are not sexy yet (until the coin drops and suddenly we are recognised as being quite critical to the success of the new .doms (.splats)

    t.

  11. Humm … just browsing blogs and I saw the comments to Fon that I wrote almost a year ago.

    I noticed that I was the last to write any comments and have not seen a response added. Does this mean I hit a mark with some of my points? Or that FON’s Public Relations department are stumped for words?

    I will check back later.

    T.

  12. Hi Anthony, I’m sure it’s just that no one noticed your post.

    Well, I’m not FON’s pr department, but I am an adviser. I would say that some of your concerns have just gone away. FON is beginning to succeed at doing deals with ISPs. ToS issues have not turned out to be a major practical barrier at all.

    You are suggesting that FON is about giving something for free. It basically isn’t. It’s about sharing and getting something back. The system is designed to avoid freeloading. It is designed to make your broadband connection even more useful and even more valuable, not to damage or reduce its value.

    I agree that there are large proportions of the European land-mass which are not covered with Internet access. But this is just not FON’s business. We never set out to resolve this issue. We are not a last-mile ISP and we are in no way in competition with ISPs or trying to replace ISPs. We are complementary with ISPs.

    I hope your company and FON can find some way to work together. Let me know if I can help.

  13. I think the reality will be bourne out over time.

    I follow the Wifi market pretty good so know a fair bit regd the pro/con’s of the technology and the ‘perception’.
    Anthony has some very good points – best of luck on his more moral approach.

    FON seems similiar to the Skype model and ISP’s + upsteamers will ‘pay’ (somewhat) for running FON as a ‘business’. However on a individual basis there is very little they can do to stop the flow (similiar 2 Skype).
    They will just have to co-exist over time and figure out some sort of relationship.

    Certainly it was a wise move of Skype and Google to jump in as investors as its a ‘cheap’ gamble. If the network can scale (virally and pretty cheap) then they are onto a winner. Also once that magic ‘limit’ is reached FON then becomes a major distribution channel (Boingo and others better watch their heels!)

    Lal

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