Fon Social Router – it’s good, but it’s not right

I read about the Fon Social Router project (the largest wifi community in the world) a while ago. It seemed like an excellent idea – share your broadband with the lcoal community and in exchange you can surf the web worldwide, free of charge. When they got some financial backing from Google and dropped the price of their router to $5 (about 2.75) I thought it was worth a go.

After all, my old Linksys router was becoming a bit unstable and I thought a new, Linux-based Linksys router would be more reliable and more configurable. And paying just 2.75 for a 50 router (model WRT54GL) – how can you go wrong with that?

Delivery of my router was reasonably quick (even though they were quoting something like 4-6 weeks on the site) and setup was straightforward. With just ten minutes down-time to my home web server I’d switched the plugs, restarted everything and was up and running.

Time for a quick check…

  • Web access – ok
  • Remote desktop – ok
  • Network storage – ok (after a couple of restarts of the LinkStation)
  • Web server – no response

It turns out Fon’s software doesn’t support ‘loopback’ or whatever you call the thing that lets your web requests go external before resolving back to the internal network. So no more accessing www.grantgibson.co.uk from inside the house, or following links to it from other sites. I could live with this though, all I had to do was remember to access it via its local network name at home.

The next test was wifi access. I’ve got a couple of wifi devices at home – a Shuttle Media Centre PC and an iPAQ handheld PDA. Both were able to connect easily enough, but before they could access the internet they had to log on to the fon router via a web interface. Fair enough – I entered my username and password and ticked the ‘remember me’ option. I was online and everything was cool – until I restarted. Even with the ‘remember me’ option ticked, you have to go via the fon access page every time you restart the computer.

Although this might not sound too inconvenient, it takes away some of the benefits of a Media Centre PC. With a normal router in action you can start up, navigate and shut down a Media Centre all from the remote. With the FON installed you need to get the keyboard and mouse out every time you start, just to access your local network file store.

On the PDA it’s just as much of a drag. The FON login page is optimised for modern desktop browswers and doesn’t degrade well on PDAs at all. Logging in on that tiny screen is a chore, espeicially if you weren’t going online to use the web. The PDA has loads of great features like network music access, PC remote control and TomTom live traffic updates – but they’re only worthwhile if they happen seamlessly – not after a laborious login process.

My Nabaztag wifi bunny is also out of the question – it requires wifi access but has no facility for inputting login credentials on a web page (although it has an impressive list of security options via its own web interface).

The final nail in the coffin for my FON was the fact that you must select whether all wifi users (even those who have paid for guest access outside your home) get access to your LAN, or if they only get access to the internet. At the default setting of internet-only, the router is relatively secure but useless. Without LAN access from my Media Centre PC I can’t access any of my videos or music stored on the network. Similarly, the PDA has no way to talk to the other PCs.

With LAN access enabled, functionality is restored, but at a huge cost to security. Obviously with a public access point you can’t have any meaningful security (turning off SSID broadcast or requiring a WEP key is out of the question) so literally anyone on the street could pay $2 to browse my entire home network.

Unless FON can provide a MUCH more configurable firmware, with lists of security exceptions – perhaps based on MAC addresses – then there’s really no way I could make use of it again. Unless I flash it back to Linksys default…

Update (20/09/06): Om Malik just posted about a new Fon router that has two wireless channels allowing separation of public and private networks. This has the potential to overcome many of the problems I’ve outlined above. Sounds interesting – if you try one please let me know how well it works.