Meraki brings free WiFi to 100,000 San Franciscans

Months after Earthlink gave up on providing municipal wireless service in San Francisco, a company called Meraki is quietly moving forward with its plans to blanket the entire city in free WiFi. In fact, the company just crossed a big threshold — Meraki says more than 100,000 people have used its Free the Net service.

That number is more than double the 40,000 users that Google- and Sequoia-backed Meraki was reporting at the beginning of the year. Meraki’s wireless network currently offers its most comprehensive coverage in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights and Noe Valley neighborhoods; residents of those areas plus the Mission, Alamo Square, Hayes Valley, Russian Hill and the Castro can ask Meraki for free repeaters to spread that network even further. (See the map of Meraki coverage below.) Meraki even provides free wireless to some of the city’s affordable housing developments, and plans to expand in that area, too.

Chief executive Sanjit Biswas says that Earthlink and Meraki have very different business models. Unlike Earthlink, Meraki isn’t seeking the city government’s financial support or approval, and it isn’t looking to make money from the network, either. Instead, Biswas describes Free the Net as a “testbed” and showcase for the company’s wireless technology, which Meraki then sells elsewhere. (The company runs local ads as part of its Free the Net service, but only as an experiment. Meraki isn’t making any money from those ads.)

As for providing wireless in affordable housing projects, Biswas says Meraki stumbled on that idea by accident. Without really planning to do so, Meraki covered some affordable housing units with its network, then noticed that there was substantial usage in those areas. (Biswas says he doesn’t have exact numbers, but estimates there were “dozens” of users in a building with 100 units.) That’s kind of surprising, but Biswas notes that Free the Net is a way to provide fast Internet connections to people who own computers and perhaps dial-up Internet connections, but can’t afford broadband. (Broadband growth is slowing, after all.) Impressively, Meraki isn’t spending any city dollars on this project, either.

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine that every city can get free WiFi as a loss-leader for projects elsewhere. But Biswas says Meraki is seeing healthy growth for its pay product too, particularly in emerging markets like Latin America and Africa. As an example, he says Meraki created a wireless network for a village in Chile in just five days. There’s interest in the United States, too, primarily with an “amenity” model, e.g., a business association pays Meraki so that shoppers can get free WiFi in Harvard Square.

As a Noe Valley resident, I’ve already benefited from Free the Net — I’m not covered at home, but I use the network whenever I’m writing at my neighborhood coffee shop. The company is still a ways off from its goal of covering the entire city, but I’m definitely rooting for its success.

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