On January 4, 2008, Mountain View, CA-based Meraki announced its plan to provide free, broadband wireless access to the city of San Francisco by year’s end. The network, made possible by Meraki’s unique router/repeater technology and $20 million in venture capital, was supposed to be fully deployed by this summer.
The project, dubbed “Free the Net,” was launched as a trial in 2007 and, by the end of that year, served roughly 40,000 people in a two-square-mile section of the city. As of Tuesday, Meraki says it now has more than 110,000 users, about 7% of San Francisco’s residential population, and coverage over half the city (3.5 square miles).
“It’s definitely grown quite a bit,” says Sanjit Biswas, Meraki President and co-founder. “We’re still on track for our goal of being in every neighborhood.”
The City by the Bay
The network is intended to function as a giant test bed of Meraki’s technologies. To keep a better eye on it—and to satisfy the half of his staff that wasn’t already living in San Francisco, but wanted to—Biswas moved his company’s offices to San Francisco earlier this year.
“We started Free the Net last year before we moved,” says Biswas. “It’s helpful to be close to the network, but it was also more of a personal move for a lot of employees—half the company had been living here and the other half wanted to.”
From his new offices in the SOMA district, near Caltrans, Biswas and his team have been building both Free the Net and their core business.
“In the U.S., businesses are using the Free the Net model on a much smaller scale,” says Biswas. “Our clients are also often small towns that want to offer free Wi-Fi downtown, in a business district, or across the whole town. [Our solution] is cost-effective. You can get 20 devices for $3,000 and light up the whole place—and deploy it all at once in a week.”
Meraki’s approach to growing its San Francisco network is relatively grassroots. There has been no advertising blitz, no organized outreach, no bloated marketing budget.
“We grow organically to cover individual people,” says Biswas. “You’ll bump into people on the street and they’ll recognize your tee shirt. We are continuing to grow; it’s one of the largest networks that’s been out there in the world.”
While the network has garnered some coverage in the press, primarily, says Biswas, it spreads through word-of-mouth.
“A few dozen people volunteer [to host equipment] every week. People tell their friends, ‘if you sign up with these guys, you’ll get free Wi-Fi,’” says Biswas.
Meraki’s substantial international business is growing in much the same way. With Meraki networks functioning in 120 countries, Biswas says, “It’s word of mouth, I think. Someone will do a successful deployment and then tell their relatives or friends. We entered Ecuador and New Zealand, and then there were networks all over those countries six months later. We do especially well where there’s not a wired infrastructure in place.”It’s the infrastructure, stupid
Despite this grassroots approach that—at least in San Francisco—requires individual volunteers who will share their access points, Biswas makes clear that Meraki is not FON.
“There’s a misconception about what Meraki is and isn’t, and we’ve been compared to FON, but we’re really more about infrastructure,” says Biswas. “Instead of [individual] consumers, like FON, for us, it’s towns,” says Biswas. “Like Cape Horn—they are now offering Wi-Fi across Cape Horn [at the southern tip of Chile]; and Iceland—with our equipment.”
As municipal Wi-Fi endeavors have struggled and often failed to offer free Wi-Fi using ad-supported, non-profit, or subscriber-based business models, Meraki’s architecture and price point make smaller scale muni/metro deployments realistic.
“We’re seeing these ‘mini munis’ that keep coming to us. In terms of cost, for a business district to spend $5,000—it’s not a lot of money. We had a bunch of community folks who were irritated with us because of our pricing, but that’s not where our customer base is at all; it’s apartment buildings, those kinds of places. It’s apartment complex owners who were trying to decided between repainting the rec room or adding Wi-Fi—or towns that decided to put in Wi-Fi instead of one more street lamp.”If you build it, who will come?
Free the Net is entirely funded by Meraki and uses all Meraki equipment. The network expands as local businesses or residents agree to host an open AP at their location in exchange for equipment.
“With Free the Net, since it’s all our products, we get to be our own customer,” says Biswas. “That helps us improve the products as well.” The network is made up mostly of the Meraki Pro Outdoor, which gets deployed on the exteriors of the houses of people who volunteer.
“Sometimes we provide broadband as well,” says Biswas. “We pay for the gear and the broadband, and rely on the volunteers to offer the APs.” As the San Francisco test bed expands, Meraki is learning a great deal about who uses muni Wi-Fi.
“The amount of raw usage is spectacular,” says Biswas. “ We see hundreds of users at once, and the devices identify themselves, so we know what our users are relying on to access the network.” [View a real-time usage map here.]
Currently, there are about 1,000 active APs in the city. A few dozen of those are solar-powered.
“We’re seeing local business owners who want to offer free Wi-Fi in their venue, like cafes and restaurants; home users who didn’t have a broadband connection already. There are a lot of higher-end people in San Francisco who have broadband networks already at home, but they use ours as a secondary source when they’re out and about. On any given day, about 20% of our users are iPhone users. Those people use it because it’s faster than EDGE or a 3G network. Wi-Fi is a lot better user experience.”
San Francisco is known for its hills, but Biswas says the topography has not presented any unconquerable challenges.
“If you have a house on a hill, you just put an AP on the roof and have links that can go for a mile or two. As we crawl up Twin Peaks to Sutro Tower, for instance, or into the Haight and the Mission, we face the unique geography of San Francisco—trees, hills, sometimes someone will have a taller building in the way. But, our customers around the world are seeing those same problems. If you put out a bunch of APs, you can hedge your bets. It doesn’t have to be the tallest building.”
Biswas expects both Free the Net and Meraki’s domestic and international community of users to continue to grow. We may even see a WiMAX solution in the not-too-distant future.
“We have been following WiMAX,” says Biswas. “Chipsets are finally coming to a price point and are mature, stable, and robust enough…Perhaps next year.”
- For more on Meraki, read “Meraki in Tiers,” “Review: Meraki Mini and Outdoor Router/Repeaters,” and “Meraki Frees the Net in San Francisco.”
- For more on solar-powered Wi-Fi, read “Wi-Fi, Philanthropy, and Solar Power,” “Proxim, Hutton Ship Solar-Powered Wireless Camera,” and “Solar-Powered Wi-Fi.”
- For more on municipal deployments, read “MetroFi Admits Defeat,” “Stephouse Proves Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” “OKC Gets Muni Wi-Fi Right.”
- For more on FON, read “How to: Set Up a FON Spot,” “FON Aims for Ubiquity,” and “I’ll Show You Mine, if You Show Me Yours.”
Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet and a former resident of San Francisco.