Meraki announced today that it will provide free, broadband wireless access to the entire city of San Francisco by year’s end. If all goes as planned, by the time the cold, summer fogs roll in, a good portion of the three-quarters of a million San Franciscans (and the hundreds of thousands who visit the City by the Bay each year) will be able to use their Wi-Fi-enabled devices to get free, high-speed Internet access anywhere within the seven-square miles of the city’s limits.
Meraki is a Mountain View, California-based startup that began as an experiment at MIT, incorporated in April 2006 and, shortly thereafter, moved its operations from Massachusetts to California. The company takes its name from a Greek word that means “doing something with creativity, love, or soul,” and has made a commitment to “to bring affordable Internet access to the next billion people.”
“Our mission is to bring down the cost of access, to change the economics of access, and to bring access to people who haven’t had it before,” said Sanjit Biswas, president and co-founder of Meraki in a 2006 interview with Wi-FiPlanet. In the case of San Francisco, the cost of access has been lowered to…free.
The San Francisco treat
The network, which Meraki hopes to have fully deployed by the middle of 2008, is made possible by Meraki’s unique router/repeater technology and $20 million in venture capital.
“Meraki will fund the entire cost for establishing the free network across the city, as part of an effort to showcase for other communities around the world how the company’s technology can allow the creation of city-wide access networks at a fraction of current costs. No public funds will be used to build this new Meraki wireless network in San Francisco,” said Meraki in a press release today.
The network will function as a giant test bed of their technologies and will also test out other elements, such as ad-supported models. The company expects the cost to total in the “low-digit millions” and will write off the expense as part of its R&D budget.
The San Francisco project, dubbed “Free the ‘Net,” was launched as a trial last year and eventually served roughly 40,000 people in a two-square-mile portion of the city. In the test area, Meraki says the network identified and worked around more than 20,000 sources of interference, and still delivered almost 1Mbps of access to every user. Given the trial’s success, Meraki decided to green-light the city-wide expansion.
Router, rinse, repeat
The network will employ thousands of Meraki’s small, low-power radio repeaters, many of which will be powered by Meraki’s solar power module (right). The Wi-Fi signals of the repeaters installed on rooftops, balconies, and windows will be combined to extend access across the hilly, foggy city. The user-friendly repeaters also communicate with Meraki central servers and are automatically optimized for speed and performance without any maintenance from users—a sort of set-it-and-forget-it approach to access.
Phil Belanger, a Wi-Fi expert whose company, Novarum, does on-the-ground testing and analysis of municipal networks, believes Free the ‘Net is a great experiment.
“Meraki is cool,” says Belanger. “I think [the project] will work for Meraki. It will be good PR. It will be a good proof of concept. It will be a great lab in their backyard. However, this is not a repeatable ‘model.’ Remember, Meraki is giving away most of the equipment and paying for most of the Internet backhaul. They are not going to do that in ten or 20 or 100 cities. So, the real repeatable model has yet to be created. This network in SF will prove the concept technically–using lots of small, low-power APs rather than big infrastructure outside. It will prove the business part of citizens being willing to host a free or low-cost node on their property. But, who will pay for the equipment and backhaul in the next city? Why will they do that? How will they make money?”
Craig Settles, a Bay Area resident and author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless, agrees that this model is not necessarily “repeatable.”
“This is a complement to, not a replacement for muni networks,” says Settles. “The nature of these Meraki repeaters, at least the current models, is that they’re not as good an option for widespread outdoor coverage as the access points from companies, such as BelAir and Tropos. Conversely, the Meraki units are better for indoor coverage than CPEs vendors have been trying to sell to constituents to augment the muni networks.
“Also, with municipalities now forced to find the cost-justification for investing in muni networks, digital inclusion has taken a back-seat to using the networks for mobile government workers and certain businesses.”
An uphill battle
Meraki is tackling the indoor/outdoor access problem by employing a two-pronged solution. The backbone of the San Francisco network will be built using hundreds of small solar-powered distribution points, donated by Meraki and installed on residential and commercial rooftops. This will provide outdoor access and a certain level of indoor access to residents who are able to receive a signal. For people and businesses looking to boost the signal indoors, Meraki will provide free Indoor repeaters that will bring the broadband Wi-Fi signal indoors, while serving the dual purpose of strengthening the network.
“In San Francisco, this will be great because it entirely circumvents the difficult City Council and the battles between the mayor and City Council,” says Belanger. “With the Meraki approach, this is a private network using unlicensed spectrum. They don’t need the city’s permission. They don’t need city mounting assets or rights of way. The politicians will just be cheerleaders on the sidelines—they cannot mess up this approach.
“The resulting network is very different than the other Metro Wi-Fi approaches. It ends up supporting ONLY public Internet access. It is not pervasive, but will be available and at many interesting locations. It will be great for iPhone users! The other Metro Wi-Fi systems usually support other applications, like meter reading, or video surveillance, or a police and fire mobile data network. This network will not have that dimension at all and cannot do that.”
“In my view,” says Belanger, “the best architecture for Metro scale wireless networks would be a combination of the big outdoor infrastructure and Meraki. The biggest challenge for the Metro Wi-Fi networks that we have tested is getting the signal into (and out of) houses. Meraki can do a great job of crossing that barrier… and it is low-cost.”
In terms of performance, Belanger says he expects the SF Meraki network to be, “okay.”
“I have informally tested a Meraki network in San Diego,” says Belanger. “It was free and available in a residential neighborhood. It was not pervasive at all. I had to literally go right next to a house hosting an AP in order to get a signal. The performance was about the same as a 3G cellular data network, but this was almost a year ago.”
We are the world
After much debate and some floundering on the part of San Francisco’s TechConnect Committee, which ran into funding issues and other conflicts between the city’s elected leaders and the high-profile vendors it was considering, it would appear that San Franciscans are, at last, getting unwired en masse.
Whatever the result of the deployment, Meraki’s Stanford- and MIT-educated founders can’t be accused of not dreaming big.
“This groundbreaking network in San Francisco will show the world that with Meraki’s unique approach to building networks, we can quickly bring broadband Internet access to every city in the world,” said Biswas.
“By expanding our San Francisco network we are creating the largest real-world test network of its kind, where we plan to develop new wireless networking technologies and also test the economics of free, ad-supported Internet access.”
A few of Meraki’s satisfied customers in Ecuador.
Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-FiPlanet.