Hassle-free Wi-Fi in The City?

As City Hall trades volleys with private companies and a host of critics over the future of San Francisco’s citywide wireless Internet access, a tiny startup has been quietly spreading a Wi-Fi quilt over The City free of charge.

Mountain View-based Meraki — founded by three Ph.D. students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology — makes and sells hardware that allows for the creation of wireless “meshes.”

It is giving the hardware to San Franciscans for free in an effort to provide wireless Internet access to all of San Francisco — and publicize its technology.

City officials are scrutinizing a proposed deal with EarthLink and Google that would allow those companies to build, install and run a free Wi-Fi network and charge residents $20 a month for faster service.

However, EarthLink has postponed contract talks and some politicians are criticizing the plan as nothing more than a boondoggle for the two Internet giants, and are calling on The City to build and maintain its own service.

As politicians, activists and the private sector trade barbs and proposals over a public system, more and more San Franciscans have signed up for free service with Meraki, which has the financial backing of Google.

Meraki’s Wi-Fi model is based on small signal boosters called repeaters, or “minis.” These $50 units pick up signals from other repeaters to create a mesh of signals over which information flows to and from Internet access points. Participants can decide to offer some of their own DSL bandwidth as an Internet access point, or they can simply help boost the signal to one of Meraki’s DSL connections.

San Franciscans can call or go to Meraki’s Web site to get a free mini, which the company will install for free, thereby expanding the network in what Meraki terms a “bottoms-up approach.”

“I think we’ve seen a ton of interest after the whole EarthLink announcement or lack thereof,” Meraki CEO and co-founder Sanjit Biswas said. “People have been getting kind of impatient and I think that’s been driving a lot of users to our network as well.”

The company said more than 7,000 people are using the free network.

While Google is an investor in Meraki, Biswas said the move to bring free Wi-Fi to The City “is really an independent project. Google’s not directly involved.”

Meraki’s stated goal is to “bring Internet access to the next billion people,” but not all watchers share the company’s enthusiasm.

Seth Schoen, a technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the company faces an “uphill battle” in getting users to recognize it as a brand against the patchwork of networks already covering The City.

“Both in my office and in my home, I routinely accidentally get on neighbors’ open networks. I don’t think that’s a unique experience in The City,” Schoen said. “I’m not sure how many Wi-Fi users recognize the branding of the Wi-Fi they use.”

amartin@examiner.com


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