January 30, 2007 4:00 AM PST
Spanish start-up Whisher promises free Wi-Fi for all
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So far, broadband providers have not come down hard on other companies proposing to build free Wi-Fi networks that cobble together networks using existing Wi-Fi hot spots. But this could be because these networks are still relatively new, and their service models require additional equipment.
For example, Fon, based in Madrid, launched its service last year. Initially, the service required users to download software onto their existing Wi-Fi routers. The software on the routers then splits the Wi-Fi signals to provide a private network indoors and a public one outdoors. But downloading software onto a router proved too difficult for most users. In the fall, the company introduced the La Fonera router. The company has been giving away devices to spur adoption.
As of October, the company only had about 112,000 La Fonera and Fon-enabled routers registered as part of its network. Henson of Verizon said the company has seen little to no impact from Fon on its network so far.
Moreno believes Whisher's approach could be more successful, much faster than Fon's model. The main reason is that Whisher's solution is completely software-based. The company has developed peer-to-peer software that runs on any Linux, Mac or Windows machine and works over any Wi-Fi network. The software works by providing the necessary authentication registered users need to gain access to a particular Wi-Fi network. The company keeps a database of registered users and hot spots. When a user wants to connect to a Wi-Fi network, the software finds the best access point and automatically provides secure access to that network.
Whisher's solution is much more than providing free Internet access, Moreno said. The software also creates a wireless social network that allows users to send instant messages, share files and establish private and public micro-community networks using Wi-Fi hot spots. Members of the community are encouraged to tag, rate or leave comments about any wireless hot spot.
The interactive and social nature of the software also provides a lot of control to people sharing their Wi-Fi connection. Because all users are registered with Whisher, the person who owns the residential network can see which users are on his network at any given time. Users on the network can communicate with each other through IM. And if the network owner doesn't want someone using his connection, he has the option to block people trying to access his connection.
Like any other social network, Whisher's success is completely dependent on getting people to download the software and also to share their connections. Like Skype, which also uses peer-to-peer client software, Moreno believes that an easily downloadable client that provides free Internet access will have wide appeal.
But Henson of Verizon is skeptical that American broadband consumers will actually be willing to use other people's connections, even if it's free.
"Most people don't want to share their connection," she said. "They want to be able to call customer care when something goes wrong, and they don't want to have to rely on their neighbor as their Internet service provider."
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