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Fon community embraces GSM

Hotspot network just waiting for an operator to call

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Hotspot sharing community Fon has signed a deal with Ubiquisys to put GSM cells into Fon hotspots, just as soon as they can get a network operator to let them.

Fon users are already able to get internet connectivity via each other's hotspots, but the new agreement between Fon and Ubiquisys is intended to allow members of the community to share bandwidth for mobile telephony too, as long as the companies can get a network operator or two signed up.

The Fon service provides a Wi-Fi router that can be configured to share the available bandwidth with other Fon users, and in exchange the owner is allowed to use bandwidth offered by other members of the community. That got a whole lot more useful when BT Openzone joined, but the deal also allows BT to claim 120,000 hotspots across the UK and Ireland, even if most of them are hidden in suburban back rooms.

Ubiquisys knows a lot about femtocells (tiny GSM base stations) and certainly has the technical knowledge to build one into Fon's routers. This would enable members of the community to make phone calls over each other's broadband connections, but the deal needs network operators to sign up, and offer some incentive to use the service.

The only femtocell currently available in the UK is from Vodafone, which offers nothing in the way of incentive besides increased coverage. Calls and data routed over one's own broadband connection are also billed for by Vodafone at the usual rate, effectively making the punter pay twice. But that model's likely to change as femtocells get more ubiquitous and cheaper, and some competition enters the market.

If Fon can sign up an operator or two, and provide discounts on calls routed through the Fon community, then this could significantly increase network coverage. But without a network operator neither Fon nor Ubiquisys can deploy anything: the network operators own the frequencies, and they say what's allowed in their space. ®

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