Borrowing broadband from a neighbor as if it were a cup of sugar or a can of beer is the concept behind FON Wireless Ltd., a Spanish company that operates in more than a dozen countries.
The company sells Wi-Fi routers to people who have broadband connections to their home or business, and the router enables the buyer to connect computers wirelessly anywhere on his premises. The router also has a second channel that can be tapped by computer devices operated by strangers in the vicinity.
FON's routers are configured to keep the home-based computers secure even as strangers connect through the second channel, said Joanna Rees, chief executive of FON USA based in San Francisco. Anyone who buys and operates a FON router is eligible to use any other FON router without charge. It's sort of a global Wi-Fi co-operative.
FON is intended to be a profit-making enterprise, Rees said, and it hopes to earn money from fees charged to people who aren't part of the FON co-operative when they use the system. This usually amounts to $2 or $3 a day. The company also plans to offer advertising-supported free connectivity.
In the future, there may be other services, such as gaming and Internet radio, which generate revenue for the company, she said.
Although most of us may associate Wi-Fi connections with using laptops in coffee shops or hotels, Rees said the next generation of devices will move beyond laptops to include Internet radios, phones and gaming gizmos that run on Wi-Fi.
"You have to think beyond the laptop to a new wave of Wi-Fi devices that offer applications that don't involve typing on a computer," she said.
As wireless broadband becomes more ubiquitous in urban areas, Rees said, customers may opt to pay $10 monthly subscriptions for access to 4 million songs rather than pay $1 to download a single tune.
Strictly speaking, FON's basic premise violates terms of service set forth by most Internet service providers who supply broadband services. If you pay $30 a month for a high-speed connection from the phone company, you're not allowed to resell that service to others.
But Rees said the firm is not concerned by this. It recently entered an agreement with Time Warner Cable that approves FON's use. FON expects that deal will be followed by agreements with other Internet connection firms.
"They endorsed our platform," she said. "It's good for the service provider because it promotes broadband."
BRILLIANT IDEA: A new light source made with aluminum foil that outshines traditional incandescent bulbs has been developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Researchers have made thin, lightweight panels that emit light suitable for home or office illumination. They create light using the same principle as conventional fluorescent lights: atoms of gas excited by electrons emit photons. But the new approach is simpler than standard fluorescent lights, said Gary Eden, an engineering professor and collaborator in the research.
The lights are made with sapphire sandwiched between aluminum foil. A microcavity within the sandwich houses a tiny amount of gas.
"Each lamp is approximately the diameter of a human hair," said Sung-Jin Park, chief author of a report on the project. "We can pack an array of more than 250,000 lamps into a single panel."
In experiments, the lamps have outshone incandescent bulbs and are nearly as efficient as fluorescent lights. The engineers predict that with further design modifications, the plasma arrays will become more efficient than fluorescent lighting.
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