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Startup brings free Wi-Fi to the streets of San Francisco

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A California startup is relying on civic-minded volunteers in San Francisco to accomplish a goal that so far has eluded the city's government leaders: provide residents with wireless internet access that's free and dependable.

Over the past few weeks, Meraki Networks has launched a grass roots "Free the Net" campaign that encourages residents to install a simple repeater in their windows that beams Wi-Fi signals to their neighbors. In less than a month, more than 1,000 people have answered the call, creating a network that extends several square miles and has about 5,500 users.

The network, one of about 1,000 around the world set up by Meraki, is being erected as San Francisco leaders continue to bicker over a proposed city-wide Wi-Fi network designed to bridge the so-called digital divide.

It turns out blanketing the city with free coverage isn't as easy as many thought. Critics have pilloried the proposal, citing a host of concerns, the most compelling of which include the loss of privacy and significant limitations in getting the darn thing to actually work as advertised.

In its current form, Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposal with Google and Earthlink allows the companies to track who users are, where they are geographically located and what sites they browse and to store that information for an indefinite period of time. That's not necessarily a good thing for someone researching HIV treatment, or frequenting a support group for child abuse survivors.

There's also ample reason to doubt the proposed network, which is based on the primitive 802.11b standard, will connect many of people who attempt to use it. Due to the limitations of that technology, those who live in tall buildings, in apartments far from the street, or in abodes surrounded by lots of vegetation may be out of luck. Equipment for amplifying the signal may help, but there's no guarantee.

Meraki thinks there are other ways to connect.

"What we're hoping is other people will see Free the Net and be inspired by it to set up other networks in their communities," said Sanjit Biswas, CEO and co-founder of Meraki.

Meraki is the result of the Roofnet Project, a 2002 research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that provided free Wi-Fi to about 600 students in Cambridge. The research team specialized in creating repeaters that were easy to set up, recognizing that many volunteers had few if any IT skills.

The company provides both the repeaters and the internet connection gratis. All that's needed is for enough volunteers to ensure the signal is ubiquitous. The company makes money by selling its plug-and-play hardware to property managers and other groups that want an easy way to network large areas.

Meraki does collect some information about users of the San Francisco network, so we're not sure the service is going to make the civil libertarians among us any more comfortable. After all, if AOL could compromise the privacy of countless users by releasing the queries of 650,000 users, then anyone can.

But unlike San Francisco's planned system, the company's daisy-chain hardware setup can easily scale tall buildings and hard-to-reach cul de sacs that would likely be cut off from the network Newsom wants to build.

"It is basically an adequate assumption that this indeed can be an alternative to that kind of network, or it can be a complement to that kind of network," said Craig Settles, a business consultant who advises cities on municipal wireless.

In other words, Meraki's San Francisco experiment is by no means a panacea for the problems that are likely to plague the city's proposed network. But the network comes free of charge and just may prove that there are other ways to blanket a city in Wi-Fi. And for that, it's worth watching. ®

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