UPDATE: No longer just a rumor. It’s true. A friend says she was at Coupa Cafe in Palo Alto on last Friday, and they were using this system: “You could get onto their WiFi network (formerly free) if you checked in via facebook. There was a small opt-out link to let you get online without checking in, but the opt out was not functioning.”
I have noticed an unusually active rumour mill in the past few days about Facebook offering free WiFi in exchange for check-ins. Facebook has been reportedly supplying businesses (e.g. cafes) with free WiFi routers. If a customer logs onto the network via her Facebook account, she gets free WiFi service. If she does not, then the business owner supplies her with a password.
Where have we seen this model before? FON. Remember FON, a free router/free WiFi service started by Argentine entrepreneur, Martin Varsavsky? For people born only yesterday, here’s how FON worked.
In the beginning, FON distributed free WiFi access points (and later charged for them as it does now) to businesses and residents. You install your FON router, sign up to become a “Fonero” and use your login details at home to log in to other Foneros’ networks. You allow other Foneros to use your network.
This works well if many, many people become “Foneros”. Later versions of the FON router even allowed you to create two SSIDs (one for public access and one for your private access), and control the amount of bandwidth that you give to Foneros who happen to be passing by and using your network. If you are a business owner or simply an individual who wants to charge for access, the FON router allowed you to do this.
Unfortunately, despite the brilliant idea, FON did not catch on as much as I (and many others) would have liked. The problem was this: a lot of people already had routers from their telecom or cable company, or had simply bought routers from Apple and Linksys, and did not want to go through yet another painful WiFi access point installation and configuration. In the beginning, the FON routers were difficult to install. Many people had them sitting around in their houses, still in boxes. The later FON APs were much easier to install, closer to “plug and play”. I have personal experience of installing FON routers twice in Amsterdam and it was much more improved the second time. But even in that crowded city environment (I lived right in the center), hardly anyone was logging onto my network. Perhaps it’s different now with more people walking around carrying iPhones. (Note: FON now works with BT in the UK to distribute the FON router.)
Back to Facebook’s Wi-Fi adventure. My question is: Will Facebook start advertising to you over the Wi-Fi network? If yes, then this resembles what MetroFi and a lot of other now dead WiFi companies were trying to do a few years ago — make advertising pay for free WiFi service. Unless a huge number of people log in to WiFi networks using their Facebook accounts, the amount of money Facebook will make via advertising in this fashion will be minuscule. In addition, if Facebook begins to snoop on their user’s browsing activity and advertises to them in an intrusive way, people will simply refuse to log in using their Facebook accounts.