Hi, I'm in Paris this week! Annoyed at the state of wifi sharing networks. Not so much that they don't work - reputedly they work great, and France has at least two big ones with millions of hotspots, free.fr and sfr.fr - but that it's way too hard to just buy a 2-week subscription to one.
The way these things work is your ISP (in this case, free.fr and sfr.fr) include a second and/or third wifi SSID in all their home wifi routers, and anybody with a home Internet connection (or in some cases a cell phone plan) can access the connection of any other member, on a firewalled-off network.
This is great - if you live here and have a home Internet connection. If you're visiting like me, it falls apart pretty fast. As far as I can see, the only way to get a non-SIM-locked subscription (the SIM-locked ones auto log into WPA2-encrypted networks using EAP-SIM, which is neat, but requires a cell phone with an appropriate SIM... but my phone is CDMA, argh, and my laptop obviously has no SIM) is to get a home Internet plan, which is obviously not going to work for me. To just go buy a SIM isn't so hard for sfr.fr, since they have retail stores (will experiment with this tomorrow, hoping they're open on Sundays), although you have to sign up for a subscription since their pay-as-you-go plans don't have wifi access. That means you have to remember to cancel the subscription within 30 days, sigh, and thus probably deal with the company's retention department, double sigh, in French, triple sigh. free.fr is even worse, since they seem not to have any retail stores at all, so they have to mail you a SIM. Again, not so bad if you live here, but sucks if you're just visiting.
The SIM locking, by the way, is probably all because otherwise it's too easy for one subscriber to give access passwords to all his friends, who then never need to buy their own connection. That's a problem, all right, but surely there's some other way. (The claim is that EAP-SIM is a way to auto-connect securely to their WPA2 networks without any need for a UI. Which is true, but I'm pretty sure you don't need a hardware dongle for that. It's all about the copy protection.)
Upon further investigation I found that sfr.fr is also a member of the FON network (fon.com), so basically any sfr.fr subscriber can connect to any FON-enabled wifi router, of which there are zillions in several European countries because several huge telcos (including BT) auto-opt-in all their customers (they do provide an opt-out but most people don't bother). Since sfr.fr is a FON member, theoretically any global FON user can also then reciprocally use any of the sfr.fr hotspots - except, oops, while most FON-participating telcos opt their customers in automatically, sfr.fr requires you to manually opt in, and again, most people don't bother to change the default. So the net effect is that sfr.fr subscribers who want to travel probably opt in at the last minute and use FON whenever they want, but most other people don't end up enabling it on their own account, so most sfr.fr hotspots are not FON enabled.
Which is too bad, because FON, at least, unlike sfr.fr and free.fr, at least claims to have (I haven't tried it yet) a useful web portal where non-members can just pay some money to get access for some time period. Which is all I want. "Oh, you're not a subscriber? Enter credit card number here." Or as Fry would say, shut up and take my money.
I think I'll try chasing down some FON hotspots tomorrow. There are actually still quite a lot in Paris, in the grand scheme of things, at least from how it looks on their map (http://corp.fon.com/maps). I just don't happen to be sitting near one as I do these experiments. In contrast, every time I look, I am always near a free.fr or sfr.fr shared hotspot. This place is seriously saturated.
FON has virtually, but not completely, zero penetration in North America. It's pretty clear that none of the North American telcos have signed on, although individuals can buy a FON router and try to participate, and it looks like some have. It's so sparse that it's nearly useless though.
I don't think FON is a good enough reason for the average citizen to to out and buy a special router. On the other hand, an extra special router with extra special features (whatever they may be) could be a good platform to bundle FON into.