Startup plans to offer city free Wi-Fi

A small startup wants to go big with its free wireless Internet technology and blanket The City in coverage by the end of 2008.

Meraki, a Mountain View-based company started in 2006, has nearly 40,000 subscribers after its “Free the Net” program launched last July, and through a network of volunteers and private partnerships it plans to spread its wireless Internet from the Bay to the ocean.

The announcement comes just after the end of 2007, a year in which The City attempted to bring free wireless Internet access to residents and businesses, but disagreements about contracts and network ownership ultimately halted any deal.

In August 2007, a proposal with EarthLink failed and the Internet provider cut jobs and closed its San Francisco office before the Board of Supervisors could ratify the contract.

Meraki has secured $20 million in funding from several venture capital firms to expand Wi-Fi from a service currently focused in the Lower Haight, Castro and Mission neighborhoods. The expansion, funded entirely by Meraki, will serve as an example to other communities of how the network functions, said Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas.

“The more general citywide network doesn’t require direct involvement with The City,” Biswas said. “The way we make money is by partnering with service providers and they [pay for] access,” he added.

A service provider can be a company on the level of Earthlink or it can be a smaller entity, such as a business district, Biswas said. In Cambridge, Mass., Meraki does business with the Harvard Square Business Association, which pays for access to the network, but anyone in Harvard Square can surf the wireless Web, he said.

Meraki’s network currently combines signals from “radio repeaters,” which pick up signals from other repeaters to create a mesh of signals that broadcast the Internet wirelessly to computers. Residents can sign up to obtain a repeater, which is unnecessary to access the service, but helps spread the network.

Combining that technology with new, small solar-powered distribution devices, Meraki hopes to have a network in every neighborhood by mid-year and every neighborhood by the end of 2008.

A lack of volunteers or access to rooftops for the solar-powered devices could stymy any expansion, but Meraki officials did not anticipate that being a problem, having teamed up with community groups already.

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office is working with Meraki and other companies such as FON, to provide support to the efforts, according to spokesman Nathan Ballard.

dsmith@examiner.com

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