wificafeI’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who walks around random cities with my phone in my hand, searching for open wifi signals. Fortunately, there are some interesting innovations in this area that should help travelers stay connected.

First I have to mention T-mobile’s recent change to allow free data and text messaging internationally in over 100 countries. That’s a pretty phenomenal expansion of service, and those of us already on T-mobile are finally redeemed for sticking with this cheap phone service in spite of their lousy network coverage. But that’s just straight up capitalist competition, no sharing economy involved.

For wifi access through the sharing economy there is Fon, a company offering a membership-based global wifi network. This is the only peer to peer wifi company that I know of, but they’ve grown dramatically since 2006 and are very well funded. “Fon members share a bit of their home WiFi, and in turn get free access at millions of other Fon hotspots worldwide.” To join you just buy their Wifi router and plug it into your home broadband connection. Fon has partnered with telcos in various countries to expand their network to public spaces and they also target merchants.

Fon has very good coverage in the UK and France and a lot of hotspots in other parts of Europe. Japan and Brazil also have impressive participation. In the U.S. it costs $49 for the Fon router. That’s not a bad investment for long term wifi access around the world, especially if you spend much time in Europe. While it might sound awkward using wifi outside of someone’s house (apparently it’s not uncommon to see Brits parking their cars outside of a hotspot), I love the idea of wifi access in the park (which I found in Oaxaca, Mexico last year!). I have visions of walking through the neighborhoods of Paris searching for a Fon network connection and then sitting down on someone’s front lawn to get online. But at least with the Fon app I will know exactly where to find a network.

For those who prefer to get their wifi at hotels or cafes, there are a number of companies like MyPublicWiFi which allow people to turn their computers into a WiFi access point, complete with firewall service if needed. In the case of MyPublicWifi it’s free but it only works with a windows machine. This doesn’t solve the problem of finding access to the internet, but it does enable sharing of the limited access sometimes granted by hotels and coffee shops (one connected device per room, or one connection password per receipt).

If you don’t want to pay for wifi access, some web sites make it easier to find open wifi hotspots. Services such as OpenWifiSpots.com will display your options on a handy map. This website only covers the U.S., but you can search the internet for free wifi lists for major cities around the world. And some cities are now offering free wifi in public spaces, often with corporate partnerships. Over time I expect wifi access will become less of a problem, and companies will just take advantage of access to your device to display ads and information in exchange for use of their network.