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A Free Mesh Network for San Francisco

Can tiny Meraki bring Wi-Fi to a city where Google and Earthlink have failed?

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.

Free the Net: Meraki plans to set up a free, wireless mesh network in San Francisco. The company will also offer a solar accessories kit (above) later this year. The kit will be able to power a repeater for the Wi-Fi network using power from the sun. Several kits will be installed in San Francisco to test their effectiveness in a foggy city.

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.

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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.”

Meraki’s mesh network is uniquely suited to outfitting grassroots organizations with the means to build their own network. It’s not only cheap: it was designed to run without any central control. In addition to automatically routing traffic through the different units, it enables everyone who provides an Internet access point–say, through their own DSL connection–to access their own private “dashboard,” software running on Meraki’s website. That allows Internet-access-point providers to set security levels, control the number of users who get access, allocate a certain amount of bandwidth to each user, and even tap into a Meraki-run billing system if they want to charge people for Internet access.

Michael McCarthy, a technical consultant at the Booker T. Washington Community Services Center, took up Meraki’s offer in order to connect a housing development called Westside Courts in San Francisco’s Western Addition after he priced Cisco mesh-network routers at several thousand dollars apiece. Meraki and Google volunteers helped McCarthy decide where to install 22 routers in the center’s two buildings. Now about 60 residents are online, and on any given evening, some 40 of them (mostly teenagers) download up to five gigabytes of data. What’s more, anyone in the area with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop can tap into the network and get connected for free.

“I have some technical skills, but I could never understand the Cisco routers,” says McCarthy. “But I’m able to monitor and control the Meraki network. It really is plug-and-play.”

Still, Meraki’s mesh network may not be sufficient to wire the entire city by itself. Each router can transmit a signal only about 200 meters (although Biswas says that users could extend that up to 30 kilometers by buying third-party antennas). But Yankee Group’s Wiggins, Google’s Ingersoll, and Craig Settles, president of municipal Wi-Fi consulting firm Successful.com, all believe it could be a great complement to an outdoor system–assuming city supervisors ever approve one. The biggest drawback to outdoor municipal Wi-Fi systems is reaching inside buildings–a problem that Meraki’s routers could help solve by providing the indoor signal. In the meantime, says Settles, “there’s a bloc of underserved people in San Francisco. Meraki is providing a viable option for some kind of connectivity now.”

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