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Three years ago, Google and Earthlink won a bid to install a free city-wide Wi-Fi system in San Francisco from a special city task force. Then politics set in. The board of supervisors began debating and asking for concessions: Should the city own the network? Will residents accept free Wi-Fi if it comes with Google ads? Is $20 a month too much to charge residents who opt for a faster, ad-free service? Would the system cause interference with private Wi-Fi networks? Should Google and Earthlink pay the city more than $1 million for the right to install equipment on city light poles, as stipulated in the bid? The city is still mulling over all these questions, and Earthlink is now reconsidering its commitment to urban Wi-Fi systems altogether.

Enter Meraki Networks, a wireless mesh-network company. Bypassing city hall, Meraki has given away some 200 wireless routers to city residents in the past couple of months; the routers have been accessed by more than 6,000 city residents who can pick up the Wi-Fi signal. Meraki is now offering to expand the program to give away a few thousand routers, thereby building a free Wi-Fi mesh-network system from the rooftops, balconies, and windows of anyone who wants to participate. The program is called “Free the Net.” Notes Yankee Group senior research fellow Roberta Wiggins, “San Francisco has been stuck in this paralysis. Meraki is cutting through the political red tape.”

It’s a bold experiment for the one-year-old startup, which sells mesh networks connected by $50 to $100 routers. But so far, the networks have all been restricted to individual neighborhoods, housing developments, and nonurban areas in the United States and in other countries that have little or no access to the Internet. Meraki, which is based in Mountain View, CA, is using San Francisco as a testing ground to see if a user-driven mesh network can connect a large urban area. “We want to understand how many installations it will take,” says Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas. “We’re not waiting for the city [supervisors] to vote on it.”

Meraki was founded by Biswas, a 2007 TR35 winner, and CTO John Bicket. Both were MIT graduate students who helped design a low-cost mesh network called Roofnet as a university research project. (See “Networking from the Rooftop.”) They used off-the-shelf PCs running Linux, Linksys routers, and software they wrote to route data around the mesh until it reached an access point with an Internet connection.

Meraki also has a secret weapon: financial backing–and a little assistance–from Google. Impressed with the team’s technology, Google decided to invest seed money so that Biswas and Bicket could launch a company. They took a leave from MIT, moved to Mountain View, and started Meraki last summer. Sequoia Capital, one of the venture-capital firms that invested in Google early on, also invested in Meraki. “Their mission is a good fit with the mission of our team: to promote competition in the Internet access space,” says Minnie Ingersoll, a product manager at Google’s Alternative Access Team. “It’s about getting more people online, giving them more choices.”

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Tagged: Web, Google, networks, Wi-Fi, venture capital

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