Viewsdesk - chasing the global public sphere

March 2006

ICT4D02:05, March 15, 2006

This story about how access to cellphones can make a difference in the real world comes from India. Robert Jensen of Harvard University have studied the Kerala fishermen, and conclude that introducing simple technology can put food on the table for people in rural areas. Narrowing the digital divide – in a very concrete way.

[C]ellphones ended the wastage of 6% of the catch due to a lack of buyers in some markets: the entire catch was sold, and nothing was wasted. […] Even the consumer benefited: fish prices came down because of the increase of 6% in the quantity supplied as the wastage ended. It was a win-win-win situation.

India Times have the whole story.

Technologies18:29, March 13, 2006

Andy Carvin has posted a video where Martin Varsavsky present the idea and rationale behind FON – an initiative to provide open wireless internet for the masses. I’ve been trying to get my head around this FON-idea for quite some time now, but I still don’t get it.

Considering the overwhelmingly positive reception the project has gotten, especially amongst high-profile bloggers and venture capitalists, I feel like I must be missing something. So, I’ve made an attempt to summarize my thoughts, and I urge you to explain to me why you think I’m wrong.

Without attempting to explain the whole model, since most readers probably already know about it, it is important to understand that FON use three user-levels, conveniently named after computer industry caricatures; you can be a Bill, a Linus or an Alien. This describes your sharing status, and also dictates how you can access the internet yourelf.

A Linus is any user who shares his/her WiFi in exchange for free access throughout the Community wherever there is coverage. A Bill is a user who, instead of roaming for free, prefers to receive 50% of the fees that FON charges to Aliens. And Aliens are those users who do not share their WiFi access and therefore must pay FON a modest fee every time they connect through a Fonero access point.

Seems fair? Well, yeah, maybe. Oh, I almost forgot: before you can join the share anything, you have to buy a specific router, replace the firmware and invalidate any warranties. It’s way too difficult for most, and too expensive for some.

Not Free
FON is not free. FON is actually pretty darn expensive. For an Alien, a user who does not share their connection, the fee is ?5 for 24 hours of access, or ?40 per month. That, my friends, is a pretty heft lump of money for a service that is getting cheaper by the minute. Bandwidth, in the western world, is dropping closer to zero cost every day. By comparison – I pay about ?35/month for my 100/10 mbps connection. “Modest fee”? Think again.

A Movement?
FON is trying to establish itself as a movement, complete with pictures of marching people with flags and banners on its website. This is just bull. FON is not a movement. It’s a corporation whose game is making money. Nothing wrong with that, but it ain’t no movement. Say it with me: FON is not a movement.

Truly free internet
Believe me, I’m not against open WiFi access. On the contrary, I’m pretty much having wet dreams about it. But if FON is not more than I think it is, then I do not believe it’s the way to go. FON’s thinking behind their user-levels is that people who share their internet connection need some incentive to do so. Otherwise, they say, only a few enthusiasts will go though the trouble.

In a way, I think they’re right – only a few will, but it has been proven again and again, that a few enthusiasts is all it takes. Consider the open-source projects. There are still people in my parents’ generation who claim that voluntary programming efforts can never produce something as advanced as an operating system. People, they say, have no incentive. I show them Linux, and their gaze become distant, and they repeat like zombies that it can’t be done. I boot Linux up, and they repeat like zombies that it can’t be done.

Why can’t collaborative efforts bring free internet? Because old-school economics say so?

Just looking at myself, I have a 100/10 Mbps fiber connection to the internet, and in all honesty, that is more than I can consume – even though I’ve sure many would describe me as an extremely demanding internet user. I download a fair deal of stuff, host this website and use VoIP for all my immobile telephony. Today, I spend much of my overhead bandwidth routing TOR-traffic – another collaborative effort that actually works.

The incentive for me to share my internet connection with my whole street, through an intentionally sloppy setup of a plain WiFi-router, is very simple: I hope somebody else would do the same when I need it. Just like I hope that someone is sharing the file in need on BitTorrent, and in return I share some with them. It does not take a lot of people to cover a great part of a city’s center. I do it because I’m a Good Guy, and I like that.

I would not, however, share my internet connection to everyone (be a Linus), and let FON receive ?40/month for my kindness.

The Alterative
On the other extreme of this debate are the people who want the city, state or government to provide access to free wireless internet. Varsavsky does not like this at all. In the video, he is not-very-subtle when insinuating that this is a communist way of doing things. Then again – why should he like it? It would ruin his business idea of having users are build the infrastructure for FON, pay for the bandwidth and share it – while FON receives at least 50% of all the income.

Something just does not add up, in my book. It’s like a pyramid scheme.

I’m not a big fan of big governmental projects either, but history shows that when it comes to huge infrastructural projects, private businesses are pretty darn worthless. Roads, railways – and the internet itself, would not have been without state funding.

Instead, I purpose a model where there is a state owned infrastructure, and privately owned networks. Operators can compete with price and service over rented base stations, repeaters and access-points. Well, that’s another post – but still.

I do not understand is how FON think they will ever reach critical mass by hoping that people will finance, build and operate the network for them, while profits go to the company. Internet access should – and will be – as ubiquitous as electricity, and no bar-owner would ever ask you to pay extra for the privilege of having a beer under his light bulb. The system is too complex and too expensive, and the extra benefits from just promoting free networks are non-existant.