Wi-Fi Sharing – The French Way

There is an interesting development in France concerning Wi-Fi sharing that I haven't seen anywhere else so far:

Fixed line network operators are now offering to their customers to share their DSL Internet connection over Wi-Fi with others in a number of ways:

  • FON is officially endorsed by SFR. They have upgraded the software of their customer based and operator managed DSL/Wi-Fi routers for the purpose.
  • SFR and Free now allow subscriber the use of DSL/Wi-Fi routers of other subscribers unless a customer specifically disables it.

While it is nice to be able to use someone else's Wi-Fi while being out and about there are two issues which are not addressed by this:

  • I am aware of FON for a number of years now but I have never seen one when I needed access. The number of FON hotspots might be impressive, but the range of the Wi-Fi signal is just too limited.
  • I imagine the same applies to the Wi-Fi sharing for French subscribers. As there is no way to ensure that one will find a suitable hotspot one can use for free the usability in practice is quite limited.

On the other hand, many locals might prefer such a kind of nomadity over 3G at the moment, as prices for 3G Internet access are still very high compared to other countries in Europe. With a bit of luck, though, that won't last forever. And once we have a situation like in Austria and other countries, where 50 euros buy you an unlocked 3G USB stick and a reasonable amount of data, I can't imagine that many people will go through the hassle of looking out for a suitable Wi-fi hotspot when it's much easier to just get connected over 3G.

This shows a bit of a dilemma with a future off-loading 3G traffic to Wi-Fi hotspots which might be a good thing in case we get a situation where cellular networks become too crowded: Today, users need to figure out themselves if there is a Wi-Fi hotspot close by and then use it instead of 3G. No way the majority will do that unless there is a severe price pressure or the 3G network is so loaded that the speed is not acceptable anymore.

So what is needed to make this work is an automatic means for a device to automatically use the network operator supplied Wi-Fi when found and to change back to 3G, seamlessly of course, when the user moves on. Not an easy task. In that regard, Femtos might be a better solution as they give extra capacity with a similar range without the hassle of installing software for network switching on mobile devices.

So in the end I think it's likely that we'll see a triumvirate with Wi-Fi and Femtos at home, Femtos in public hotspots, Wi-Fi in public hotspots for locals and travelers without a 3G subscription and 3G cellular for the general coverage.

7 thoughts on “Wi-Fi Sharing – The French Way”

  1. Hi Martin,
    I’ve been registered to FON and sharing my home connection for years. Even after locating a hotspot on their map and which was marked as recently active, I had to try 5 before I found one in range and where connection succeeded. And almost no one ever connected to my FON router (close Paris suburb, 5th floor, I could well connect in the street), I had about 10 connections from one user in 2008, none before, none in 2009.

    About SFR, they advertise their partnership with FON, there are neuf boxes on FON maps, but I never could access any. Maybe the SFR subscriber has to manually activate the feature, unlikely that a significant number of them do it.

    About Free, yes, there is shared access. But the wifi signal of the freebox is really weak, I use my Fonera at home, not the freebox. I have reactivated the wifi of the freebox recently to share my connection this way, but given the signal level I think this is useless.

    So I purchased a pay-per-day Bouygues 3G stick just in case, but I got so much used to no connection on the go that I hardly ever use it.

  2. I use the Free WiFi, which works well and the coverage is good. I live in Paris, though.

  3. Yes, I can confirm that SFR customers have to specifically activate the FON sharing service on their boxes otherwise they are only sharing their network with other Neuf/SFR customers.

    Martin, actually I believe that switching between operator provided WiFi and 3G is possible with the iPhone 0S 3.0.
    While digging in the advanced settings for the EasyWiFi functionality it seems like there is provision for automated authentication using certificates or credentials in carrier specific settings.

    Even without EasyWiFi on the iPhone it should be possible for operators to deploy WiFi with WPA2 and EAP-SIM and have phones automatically authenticate using the SIM parameters.

  4. Hi David,

    thanks for the reply. Hm, your usage pattern it’s telling concerning the state of mobile Internet access in France. Pricing is not interesting so you get used to not using the 3G stick. Now compare that to Austria. Here you pay 20 euros for 1GB of data valid for one year. Here, you get used to using it quite often without thinking about it…


  5. Hi David,

    Interesting. I wonder if they are using EAP-SIM in some countries… If I have the chance it would make for an interesting Wireshark Wi-Fi tracing session to see what is going on.

    Kind regards,

  6. An unlimited 3G+ data plan cost 30€ per month in France. Not sure how it compares with Austria. However, it is the same price as a triple play ADSL access, which seems to be the reference for pricing the mobile option.
    When talking about Free, I think one should highlight that Free is an ISP and does not have a radio network. Hence, their motivations are different to say a mobile operator.

  7. Hi Brighton42,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, you are right, unlike SFR who has a 3G network, Free doesn’t have one, at least not yet…

    So their approach to DSL and Wi-Fi comes from the fixed line world compared to SFR, who is a wireless network operator who’s bought fixed line DSL asset (ClubInternet) recently and now probably works on an integrated strategy.

    Similar things have happened elsewhere, like for example Germany where Vodafone and Arcor have now fully joined or O2/Telefonica having both a 3G and DSL network. However, they haven’t so far worked on a Wi-Fi sharing deal.

    Which plan from which operator would you recommend for the €30 per month (personal interest)? The difference to Austria: It’s postpaid and per month while in Austria 20 euros buys you 1-3 GB valid for a year. A great thing for casual users who are probably much more numerous than those users willing to pay 30 euros a month for doing a lot (or little) with it.

    Thanks again,

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