Park bench or Barcalounger? For a while, it seemed as if that would soon be the biggest question for urban dwellers wanting a little Wi-Fi. Just a year ago, dozens of cities across the country were trumpeting ambitious plans to get their residents online wirelessly. But most of those municipal hot-zone efforts have flopped, thanks to soaring costs and squabbling in city halls over technical glitches (St. Louis) and public-private relationships with telecom companies (Chicago). San Francisco’s Wi-Fi deal with EarthLink crumbled last year when the Internet service provider decided that the proposed network wasn’t financially feasible. Yet over the past six months, thousands of residents have been logging on — wirelessly and for free. They’re doing so with a technological assist from a startup called Meraki, which argues that setting up citywide networks is neither as expensive nor as complicated as officials and competitors would have you believe. To show off its Wi-Fi technology, Meraki plans to cover San Francisco in a wireless “cloud” by the end of 2008, at less than a quarter of the $14 million to $17 million cost of the failednetwork. Its collaborators are hundreds of volunteers who are welcoming into their homes little radio devices called Meraki Minis — “repeaters” that bounce wireless signals to one another, expanding the network. “We’re building a new kind of network,” says Meraki cofounder John Bicket. “Every time we add a volunteer, it expands.”
Meraki launched in 2006, the brainchild of Bicket and his MIT classmate Sanjit Biswas. They had created a wireless network for graduate students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, using about 100 of the Meraki Mini’s predecessor. Whenexpressed interest in the device, the pair took a sabbatical from their computer-science PhD program and, along with MIT pal Hans Robertson, decided to make a go of building networks on a larger scale.
Google was its first major customer, buying about 1,000 repeaters, most of them for a municipal network in Mountain View, California. It also injected some seed money into Meraki, which cobbled together $25 million in second-round funding, much of it from Sequoia Capital. The guys “were really exciting,” says Christopher Sacca, the head of special initiatives at Google when the company decided to back Meraki. (He’s now a venture investor and tech-firm adviser.) “What was unique was their sense of how to leverage the power of a group of individuals to overcome the hurdles that get in the way of building effective communications networks.”
In San Francisco, Meraki started by installing a handful of DSL lines in homes around the city. Then it called for volunteers, mostly by word of mouth, to host repeaters in their homes and on rooftops (outdoor repeaters are more powerful, thanks to longer antennae). Up to 100 repeaters are needed per square mile, depending on the density and height of nearby buildings. As many as 100 people can comfortably share a DSL line; Meraki calculates they’re getting 1 megabyte per second on average. As with any network, speed drops as more people log on, but heavy traffic automatically reroutes to nearby, less-trafficked connections. Six months into the project, Meraki had installed upward of 750 repeaters, covering about 10% of San Francisco; they’ll need at least 10,000 — and many more DSL lines — for the entire city. (If you’re in the city and looking for a Wi-Fi signal, the network is called “Free the Net.”)
According to Biswas, the entire San Francisco network will cost “in the low millions,” a tab that Meraki is picking up to show that a citywide network can be built relatively inexpensively. All others that want Meraki’s technology — cities, organizations, groups of Wi-Fi-loving friends — will have to pay. “Our economics are very different than the existing municipal Wi-Fi systems,” he says. “Any organization could undertake this.” A Meraki indoor repeater costs $50, while a more powerful one is $100, compared with the more complex $2,000-to-$4,000 devices that other companies typically use for their muni-Wi-Fi projects. (In addition to selling equipment, Meraki plans to provide back-end support for some networks.) And what price can be put on the time and energy saved by avoiding the regulatory labyrinth of local government? Unlike EarthLink, “Meraki’s strategy has been grassroots,” says Esme Vos, who tracks municipal Wi-Fi projects on her site Muniwireless.com. The company hasn’t “gotten stuck negotiating with City Hall.”
Vos notes, however, that “its greatest strength is also its weakness. This plan is dependent on people to put repeaters on top of their roofs.” Biswas argues there’s no question people will do this for low-cost, high-quality wireless, and notes that they’re doing it already. “We have networks in more than 100 countries,” he says, citing sales to diverse clients — from the government of Lebu, a Chilean fishing village, to a group of retailers in Cambridge’s Harvard Square that want to provide customers with Wi-Fi, to the nonprofit group NetEquality, which is networking low-income housing in Portland, Oregon. “We’re providing Internet access to all corners of the world.”