Meraki Networks to Build Free Wireless Web in San Francisco

Startup company Meraki Networks is planning to blanket San Francisco with free wireless Internet service by next year. The plan includes persuading thousands of San Francisco residents to set up free radio repeaters on their rooftops and in their homes. logo3.gif

Two larger companies, Google and EarthLink, planed a similar project but scraped the idea because of cost. Their system would have installed transmitters on street poles and other public property. But the high cost of installation, bureaucratic red tape and political haggling shut down the projects.

Meraki has already given away about 500 repeaters. This is enough to provide high-speed wireless (Wi-Fi) access to around 40,000 people in San Francisco neighborhoods, covering a 2-square-mile area. Meraki will give away an additional 10,000 to 15,000 repeaters to cover the rest of the city. Craig Settles, a business strategy consultant specializing in municipal wireless efforts foresees troubles with Meraki’s business plan.

“It’s tedious work because you have to go from community to community and from door to door,” he said. “If you don’t have a real community commitment, the access isn’t going to be as good as in neighborhoods that are really gung-ho about the idea.”

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom plans to help Meraki “publicize and grow the network without the bureaucracy and politics that challenged our last effort to bring free Wi-Fi to San Francisco,” spokesman Nathan Ballard wrote in an e-mail. Newsom has been pushing for three years for citywide Wi-Fi.

Meraki is a company that came out of a doctoral project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meraki is hoping to show that a communal approach to Wi-Fi can cover a city at a much lower price. The company hopes to make money by selling its Wi-Fi technology to developing countries that are looking for inexpensive ways to provide Internet access.