A router designed to share broadband internet connections with third parties appears to break the terms and conditions of seven of the top 10 UK internet service providers.
Fon.com offers Wi-Fi routers for as little as €5 and encourages connection sharing in a bid to build a Wi-Fi community, but its policies could put users at odds with their providers.
OUT-LAW has examined the terms and conditions of the 10 biggest UK ISPs as rated by research firm Point Topic. Only two of the ISPs, Blueyonder from Telewest and Orange Broadband, do not ban the sharing of a connection with third parties.
Seven of the ISPs, including BT, NTL and Tiscali, ban connection sharing explicitly. One ISP, AOL, bans sharing but only if the access is sold. Fon does encourage users to charge for access.
The Fon system is designed to create an informal network of users. If you buy a Fon router you receive a username and password. If you have a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop and come into range of another Fon router you can sign on with your Fon username and password and use that internet access.
If you share your Wi-Fi for free at your own home then you can use any Fon connection for free. If you don't share your own access you can use any other Fon point for €3 per day, according to Fon. If you decline the right to have free roaming access you can share 50% of the revenue generated by charging that €3 a day for your access.
Though individual ISP policies tend to forbid sharing, Tim Snape of Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) says that the idea is a good one. "It sounds like a really good thing to do," he said. "Anything that makes it easier for the consumer to get the benefit of the internet is a good thing. There are negatives that need to be addressed but our thinking is that it is good for the consumer."
"If it is being used for normal use, browsing a few websites, a bit of email, then the amount of traffic is so negligible it's not an issue," said Snape. "But if it's being used to download thousands of CDs then that is an issue but that would apply if it was an individual who wasn't sharing it. It's abuse that ISPs don't like."
A major concern for Wi-Fi users who share a connection is what the connection is used for. Should a third party use the connection for illegal activities, an investigation would lead to the address of the person whose network was shared.
In Fon's case, though, each user must already be a Fon subscriber and must sign in to use the network, meaning that everyone using the network can be identified. "What Fon are doing seems to be the right thing," said Snape. "The key to resolving this problem is being able to identify the users."