FON model taking wireless world by storm

Telstra and KT are the latest carriers to sign partnerships with homespot pioneer, as its coverage goes global

By Caroline Gabriel 

FON, the pioneer of the WiFi homespot model, is fending off all its imitators, stitching together a huge global network via a growing list of carrier partners. The latest are in the Asia-Pacific region, where it has new agreements with KT in Korea and Telstra in Australia.

Despite the importance of WiFi offload to mobile carriers, in many areas it is fixed line operators which are deploying unlicensed technology to greatest effect. One of the turning points has been the emergence of the homespot, a WiFi home router which has two SSIDs, one left open for passers-by to use for broadband access (consumers who agree to this get an incentive such as lower rates or free content). The homespots are a very low cost way for broadband providers to create clouds of coverage and capacity, especially in residential areas where the hotspot model might not make sense.

They are being used disruptively by some of the most threatening (to the cellco) providers, such as Comcast in the US - leader of the huge CableWiFi hotspot alliance - Free in France, and many wireline providers like BT in the UK. Some of the homespot enthusiasts, like Deutsche Telekom, Telstra and Free itself, have mobile arms too, but recognize that they can bolster their fixed broadband propositions, and move more cheaply to quad play, if they bet heavily on WiFi.

Last week, Google was reported to be expanding on the model with dual-SSID routers to be installed in US small businesses, creating a potentially huge WiFi network managed from the cloud, using Ruckus Wireless's newly announced platform.

But while others build on its example, FON continues to progress. Its KT alliance includes as global WiFi roaming deal, giving FON members free access to the Korean incumbent's entire hotspot network. In return, selected KT subscribers can access FON's 13m-strong global installed base when they are travelling abroad. Smartphones and other devices will connect seamlessly to selected access points in both firms' networks.

Meanwhile Telstra - always in the vanguard of new network models - has announced plans to build a national WiFi network, at a cost of over AU$100m ($92.6m). While it will build about 8,000 urban hotspots between 2015 and 2018, it will boost that figure to over two million access points via FON's homespots.

This will create a massive community of WiFi locations offering 2Mbps download speeds on the public side, while having no impact on the user's own broadband speeds. Fixed line Telstra subscribers will have free access to the network though downloads will count towards the quotas included in their home line contracts.

Telstra has experimented with public WiFi before, but closed its network in 2007 because of low uptake. But, like other operators, it has seen demand and technology move on, leading to a more viable redefinition of 'muni WiFi'. The company said its original network used 802.11b, but now it will use 802.11ac for its own hotspots. It will spend AU$50m on those plus core infrastructure, and a further AU$50m on partnering with other hotspot owners.

As reported by ZDNet Australia, CEO David Thodey insisted there was no conflict with the cellular network (though WiFi does reduce overload on 3G/4G, and therefore the amount of capex required to help it keep up with demand). "The cellular network is great if you're on the move, but if you're sitting down watching a few movies, it's a different type of access," he said. "We still think the cellular mobile network will have a great future. We just want people to have a great connected experience."

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