Feeds

Google-funded startup to offer free Wi-Fi in San Francisco

Could prove death knell for city-backed plan

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Things are looking bleak for boosters of a plan to bring a city-backed Wi-Fi access to San Francisco.

First the American Civil Liberties Union called its privacy protections crap. Then gearheads poked holes in the antiquated technology Earthlink would use to underpin the network. And finally, Earthlink, voicing new doubts about its ability to make money building such networks, said it needed more time to respond to critics demanding that terms be changed.

Now, a Google-funded startup is announcing an alternate plan to bathe the 49-square-mile city in Wi-Fi. It comes at a fraction of the cost, doesn't require the city to commit to anything, and employs hardware that's likely to outperform anything Earthlink can provide. It may prove to be a fatal blow to Mayor Gavin Newsom's already struggling plan to bridge the digital divide.

Meraki, located in nearby Mountain View, California, has already provided internet access to select parts of San Francisco that's been used by almost 7,000 unique machines. On Wednesday, it announced plans to expand that network to include the rest of the city.

"There's clearly interest and I think the interest is growing," said Sanjit Biswas, CEO and co-founder of Meraki.

In contrast to Earthlink's costly proposal to attach access points to light poles throughout San Francisco's hilly terrain, Meraki relies on volunteers who place repeaters provided free of charge in their windows so their neighbors can get access. Some of the bandwidth is provided by Meraki through contracts with DSL providers, while other throughput is delivered by residents who volunteer to share a portion of their broadband connections.

Meraki's mesh approach allows a small number of DSL connections to deliver robust internet access. Indeed, when we tested the network we got speeds in excess of 1Mb down and almost 1Mb up. Meraki's mesh might also prove more resilient to interference than the one Earthlink plans to build, since repeaters can be placed pretty much anywhere, allowing for closer proximity and better line of sight.

To date, Meraki has spent between $10,000 and $15,000 on the San Francisco mesh, which includes costs for hardware and DSL repeaters, Biswas said. He predicted costs for expanding to the rest of the city will be less than $1m.

Earthlink, by contrast, has committed to spend in excess of $2m over four years to have the right to own and operate the network for 16 years.

Oh, and Meraki's network uses 802.11b and 802.11g, and the company is testing it for use with a and n versions, which are likely to be incorporated in the future. That compares with Earthlink, which has committed to offer only the 802.11b and 802.11g. (Note: a previous version of this article incorrectly reported Earthlink was using only 802.11b.)

The potential Achilles' Heel in Meraki's service, as we see it, is the company's privacy policy, which reserves the right to track users' domain and host names, IP addresses, browser software and operating system types, "clickstream patterns" and dates and times of access.

That means people who frequent sensitive sites - say, forums dedicated to lung cancer or child abuse survivors - need to be aware that each visit may become part of a permanent record. That's not likely to be easily stomached by residents of freewheeling San Francisco.

Biswas says the privacy policy is still a work in progress and the company is open to negotiating with users.

"If certain things are off limits or rub people the wrong way, we want to find out about that," he said. "We want to work with the community to figure out what's a reasonable level."

Under the proposed San Francisco network, Earthlink would deliver a Wi-Fi access for about $20 a month and Google would offer a free, lower-speed service for free. The San Francisco expansion by Meraki, with its ties to Google, appears to be a hedge by the search king as it watches prospects for the planned San Francisco network evaporate.

One might go so far as to call Meraki's timing opportunistic. But not Biswas: he says Meraki isn't so much about competing with ISPs as complementing them.

"Overall, I think more networks are a good thing for the residents of San Francisco," he said. "If Earthlink ends up building the network, then I think that's going to be great." ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

More from The Register

next story
Yorkshire cops fail to grasp principle behind BT Fon Wi-Fi network
'Prevent people that are passing by to hook up to your network', pleads plod
Auntie remains MYSTIFIED by that weekend BBC iPlayer and website outage
Still doing 'forensics' on the caching layer – Beeb digi wonk
Major problems beset UK ISP filth filters: But it's OK, nobody uses them
It's almost as though pr0n was actually rather popular
Microsoft unsheathes cheap Android-killer: Behold, the Lumia 530
Say it with us: I'm King of the Landfill-ill-ill-ill
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
Apple orders huge MOUNTAIN of 80 MILLION 'Air' iPhone 6s
Bigger, harder trouser bulges foretold for fanbois
US freemium mobile network eyes up Europe
FreedomPop touts 'free' calls, texts and data
'Two-speed internet' storm turns FCC.gov into zero-speed website
Deadline for comments on net neutrality shake-up extended to Friday
Oh girl, you jus' didn't: Level 3 slaps Verizon in Netflix throttle blowup
Just hook us up to more 10Gbps ports, backbone biz yells in tit-for-tat spat
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.