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

Could prove death knell for city-backed plan

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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." ®

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