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Tuesday, October 30, 2007, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

Steve Jobs keen on a world where people share WiFi

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs is reportedly "very interested" in a world where people share their WiFi connections in return for free access to other wireless hotspots in their communities, and recently met with the founder of upstart provider FON, whose business aims might just dovetail with the iPhone maker.

Jobs had previously read about FON, the latest venture of Argentinean new media entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, which launched in November 2005 under mantra "WiFi for everyone." It sells routers that have been designed to enable subscribers to share their home WiFi access in a more secure manner by splitting a traditional WiFi signal into two separate channels — one for broadband internet access and another to share with fellow subscribers.

Backed by the likes of Google, Skype and Sequoia Capital, FON rose quickly to claim the title of the world’s largest WiFi community, surpassing T-Mobile of Germany within its first year in business. Appreciative of its success, Jobs expressed interest in a sit-down with Varsavsky, which eventually took place earlier this month in Jobs' top-floor office at Apple headquarters in Cupertino.

"He was very interested in FON; the meeting went on for an hour and a half," said Varsavsky, who described Jobs as appearing "trim" and "fit" in his ripped blue jeans and black hooded sweatshirt. "He's extremely curious. He asks a lot of questions. He's not the nicest guy — I mean his questions are inquisit [sic] to say the least. He's to the point."

FON's community is comprised of two types of members or "Foneros," called "Linuses" and "Bills." Both are registered FON users who share bandwidth with other Foneros and in return get free WiFi roaming on all FON Spots throughout the FON Community around the world. Unlike a Linus, however, a Bill receives money from FON when Aliens — or unregistered users — purchase FON Passes that FON sells on their FON Spot.

"I really think [Jobs] liked the idea of FON. I think he loves the idea of a world where people share WiFi. That I could tell," Varsavsky said. "I think he would like for there to be an opporunity for everyone to share WiFi."

Unlike traditional WiFi routers, FON's "La Fonera" hardware solves security issues by creating both a private and a public network. It protects the user’s connection with two secured WiFi signals: one encrypted WiFi signal that is only for the user’s own private use, and a second one that requires authentication and is for all other registered Foneros.

"Overall, I would say it was a very positive meeting that started as a difficult one and ended up with more comfort and great deal of understanding on the part of Steve and his two other colleges of him who were at the meeting on what FON was like," Varsavsky added.

What's Fone?


Earlier this month, FON and British Telecom struck a landmark deal that could potentially open the floodgates for further adoption of FON over in Europe. As part of the arrangement, British Telecom agreed to flash FON's software on all its Total Broadband Wi-Fi routers in the U.K., inviting 3 million more customers to opt into the FON Service. The announcement came just days after France's Neuf Cegetel launched a similar partnership with FON, whereby 600,000 Neuf WiFi boxes throughout France were flashed with FON software.

Apple, of course, sells its own brand of AirPort WiFi routers. However, Jobs's interest in FON may be driven by the prospect of ubiquitous WiFi access for owners of his company's new iPhone and iPod Touch handhelds.