In his English language blog, Martin Varsavsky mentions that "In the last 24 hours alone we placed 800 access points." and also discusses how they have 100,000 registered Foneros and placed an order for 100k Foneras that they expect to use up by February of next year. That's all pretty impressive stuff. Or is it?
A little while ago there was a post that caused some serious uproar and division in the FON community basically bringing to a head what has already been happening: Fonero dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, rather than respond to the claims that their UI mislead users, FON simply disabled the ability to get the statistics that had been used to determine the actual growth rate of FON access points. So, now when Martin says in his blog "we are huge and growing insanely quickly!" what evidence do we have of that growth?
Additionally, and this is where having a Spanish literate wife comes in handy, in the
24 hours Martin has offered FREE Foneras to three different user communities - Meneama, Bandaanchast, and people who have commented in his Blog. The pessimistic view of this is a very bad one!
The Pessimistic View of FON
This was all a calculated scheme. Martin specifically gave the free FON devices to these communities so that he could artificially increase the number of units "placed" in the last 24 hours. Notice the use of the word "placed" as opposed to "sold". That's kind of sketchy behavior, but I think the even worse situation is this: people who get a router for free are not committed to the project. So, of the 800 "placed" in the last 24 hours what percent will actually get turned on? What percent of the group that get turned on will still be in use 24 hours after they are turned on? How about 24 weeks down the road? PLUS - I've already commented on the folly of this idea in Martin's first discussion of the point. The quality of the network is hugely important, so you don't want to have to send people around to test the points and there are plenty of sites that will teach you how to "crack" the router so it pretends to be working even though it's just serving up private WiFi. Free Foneras degrade the quality of the network. Bad idea. So, it's both shady accounting and it was done in a way that yields very little long term value for FON.
Subnote - in the post about giving away foneras for free Martin claims that in Europe "no vale la pena" but then he has apparently reversed this decision.
The Optimisitic View of FON
Let's take it from the other side - 800 per day. Maybe that only happens on weekdays. And maybe it only happens during work weeks. Let's assume 48 work weeks per year (since FON is largely European, that's not unreasonable) now we've got 240 work days in the year. Annual growth: 192,000. Their estimate that they will run out of the 100K by February gives similar indications: around 20,000/month or somewhere around 240,000/year. Bottom line - it's an enormous growth rate.
Which FON prediction is the "right" one?
So, which is it? Is Martin faking the numbers and devaluing the network for some short term gain, or is FON exploding? Well, unfortunately we don't have any way to know. If the FON maps still had the very useful (and probably difficult to implement) feature that provided the FON access points as downloadable data we would be able to confirm Martin's statements with at least a slightly improved feeling of certainty. As it stands, we have basically no certainty in the statements. This is a shame.
My invitation to Martin
I believe this is a case of a business person who has not taken a trip on the Cluetrain. So Martin, my offer to you is that if you comment here on my blog and email me with your address I will send you a copy of the book "Cluetrain Manifesto" for free.
I've also been writing a bit of advice about how to turn the ship around - what you can do to make the FON community "higher value". Hopefully in the next few days I'll get around to finishing that off and getting it ready to publish.