Startup aims for free Wi-Fi in S.F.

A Silicon Valley startup is promising to blanket San Francisco with free wireless Internet service, reviving a crusade that crumbled last year after two much larger companies, EarthLink Inc. and Google Inc., scrapped their plans to build a high-speed network for Web surfing.

Meraki Networks Inc., whose financial backers include Google, hopes to complete the ambitious project within the next year by persuading thousands of San Francisco residents to set up free radio repeaters on their rooftops and in their homes. The 21-month-old company is to announce its plans Friday.

The system envisioned by EarthLink and Google would have required installing transmitters on street poles and other public property, a more expensive strategy that also involved more bureaucratic red tape and political haggling.

Since starting its tests about six months ago, Meraki has given away about 500 repeaters – enough to provide high-speed wireless, or Wi-Fi, access to about 40,000 people in San Francisco neighborhoods covering a roughly 2-square-mile area.

After raising an additional $20 million from venture capitalists, Meraki decided it had enough money to set up free Wi-Fi in San Francisco's remaining 47 square miles.

Meraki probably will have to give away 10,000 to 15,000 repeaters, estimated Sanjit Biswas, the MountainView-based company's chief executive.

Finding that many volunteers willing to set up repeaters figures to be a daunting task even with in a city with a population of about 800,000, predicted Craig Settles, a business strategy consultant specializing in municipal wireless efforts.

“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.

Biswas thinks Meraki can build a Wi-Fi network in San Francisco for a few million dollars – a fraction of the estimated $14 million to $17 million it would have cost EarthLink to build and maintain its proposed system.

Atlanta-based EarthLink hoped to recover its costs by selling subscriptions to the fastest tier of Internet service. Google, the Internet's search leader, was going to try making money from the project by selling ads on a slower but free version of the service.

EarthLink abandoned Wi-Fi projects in San Francisco and other cities last summer after concluding the business model wouldn't pay off.

Meraki, which spun out from a doctoral project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is using San Francisco as a showcase to prove its communal approach to Wi-Fi can work. The startup then hopes to make money by selling its Wi-Fi technology in less-developed countries looking for inexpensive ways to provide access to the Internet.

Associated Press Writer Lisa Leff in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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