San Francisco's New Wi-Fi Provider Plays it Safe

Meraki Networks' plan to cover San Francisco with free Wi-Fi, with residents' help, could be a way around the political and business barriers some municipal wireless projects have run into.

New Tactics

The startup, partly funded by Google, believes it will succeed where EarthLink and Google did not: Building Wi-Fi access throughout San Francisco at no cost to the city. It expects to finish by year's end, filling the whole city with 1M bps (bit per second) coverage.

The catch is that Meraki is footing the whole bill on this project so it can learn how to roll out such networks for profit elsewhere. The good news, if the plan works, is that it could do so for less than US$5 million, lower than the cost many other municipal wireless projects have run into. That's partly because of intelligence in access points and software, making the network more robust with fewer nodes, according to Meraki spokeswoman Erika Shaffer.

Meraki will build the backbone of its network with solar-powered rooftop access points and fill out its coverage with smaller repeaters to sit in windows or on balconies. Both will be designed and built by Meraki and provided free to residents and businesses that agree to house the gear on their property in return for better coverage. All the nodes will be meshed, so Meraki won't have to get wired broadband links everywhere its access points go.

The idea has potential in developing countries with little broadband, where Meraki sees its biggest market, but also in highly wired cities such as San Francisco, analysts said.

Customers Chip In

A key advantage is that by asking users instead of the city for mounting rights for its gear, Meraki will bypass the rancorous political fights over contract terms like the one that slowed down EarthLink's initiative last year. But seeking volunteers also makes sure that however fully Meraki has actually covered the city by the end of the year, it is pretty sure to have coverage where people actually want it.

"You know exactly where your coverage needs to be, because someone just asked you for a repeater," said IDC analyst Godfrey Chua.

Meraki believes it won't have any trouble getting people to host repeaters in their homes, based on its existing test networks in parts of San Francisco, Shaffer said. There are about 500 repeaters today, and about 40,000 people have used the network, she said.

Another problem that would seem to solve itself, assuming the network and distribution system run smoothly, is the difficult issue of indoor coverage, said Craig Settles, an independent municipal network analyst at Successful.com. EarthLink's network was to be built largely on streetlights and electricity poles, which are well suited to mobile outdoor coverage, but not so good for providing home broadband to residents who can't afford wired alternatives, Settles said. Meraki's small repeaters are designed for indoor coverage in the home where they're located as well as to flesh out the whole network.

Price is Right

On the San Francisco network, which Meraki will treat as a research and development cost, the company will test advertising as a possible revenue source for future deployments. When it approaches service providers that want to charge for access, it will also offer a billing system. Meraki has trials going on today with carriers in developing countries, Shaffer said.

In places where most people don't yet have broadband, Meraki's approach could be an attractive low-cost alternative, analysts said. However, WiMax, which requires far fewer base stations than Wi-Fi because it has a longer range, also has relatively low costs and is already a competitor in those markets, Chua said.

"I doubt that Wi-Fi would be the dominant access medium in emerging markets," Chua said.

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