Startup attempts end-around on SF’s muni wi-fi

meraki.jpgIf you’ve been around the Inner Mission over the last few days, you’ve probably noticed these posters. Wi fi for everybody? Isn’t the city still arguing about how it’s going to make that happen?

This isn’t the municipal wi-fi effort, but an end-around by a private company, Meraki. By putting up wireless antennas around a neighborhood, then selling small “repeater” antennas to individuals, they aim to create a “wireless mesh network” across selected neighborhoods of the city.

Curious about the plan, I spoke on Wednesday to Sean Gaddis, Meraki’s head of marketing.

What are you guys trying to do?

Gaddis: The vision of the company is to bring internet access to the next billion people, to make the internet universal and accessible for all. The way we do that is to change the economics of internet access, providing access where it wasn’t possible before, by empowering individuals to create wi fi communities.

How’s it work?

Gaddis: If you can see one of our wireless signals from your location — we’re in the Alamo Square neighborhood, the lower Haight, and the Mission — you connect to our ssid and you’ll see a splash page asking if you want a booster to boost the signal inside your house. It’s $49 for an indoor booster, and $99 for an outdoor booster.

But in this “mesh network” there’s got to be an actual connection to the internet somewhere.

We bring DSL to a neighborhood and recruit people with access to their rooftop to let us put up an antenna. In the neighborhoods we target, we’re trying to get one of these every block or two.

But where’s the internet service actually coming from? If I have a Comcast DSL account, can I volunteer to stick one of your antennas on my roof?

No, we’re not using consumer DSL. We bring in our own commercial DSL connection. We run it up to your rooftop and broadcast the signal, and you just need a repeater to bring the signal into the house. As long as there’s a decent line of sight, people will be able to bring it in. We’re also investigating setting up a few towers as well.

How many people are participating now?

We have over 4800 people who have accessed our network in San Francisco. You can look on and see where people have been logging into our system. It’s getting fairly dense in our target neighborhoods.

How many people have volunteered to host the rooftop antennas?

We’ve had an amazing response to that — over 25% of people volunteering have volunteered to give us rooftop access.

So you say you want to put one up on every block?

Every one or two blocks. There’s an apartment building with a roof antenna — these are really small units — and I was a city block and a half away and was still getting a signal. So if you live in that house a block and a half away, all you need is a repeater to bring the signal into your house.

mini_col1.jpgSuppose I want to volunteer my rooftop — how long does it take for you to come out with an antenna?

If you’re in a primary area, they would get to you within a month — those are the areas we’re focusing on now. If you’re a little outside a primary area, maybe a few months.

What’s the area of the Mission District, exactly, that you’re trying to cover?

Dolores to approximately Shotwell, and Cesar Chavez to 17th.

It doesn’t seem like you’re in the equipment business to make money selling these little repeaters at $49. So what’s your business model? Where are you making money?

We have the community toolbar on our browser, with some ads.

So if I connect to the internet using your signal, there’s a bar in my browser with ads?

That’s right. It’s just one component of the business model; we’re still in the testing mode at this point.

Just to make certain — this has no connection to the city’s efforts to get wi-fi across the city, right?

Right. Currently we’re not part of the process the city is going through. But we think any wi-fi for the community is a fantastic thing. We’re just trying to get a feel from the community as to what they want.

4 Comments so far

  1. eric dynamic (unregistered) on July 19th, 2007 @ 7:16 pm

    We’re running a Meraki net locally in Berkeley (near MLK x University – involving KPFA and some locals.)

    This is the “intended” use of wifi gear. It is local folks wiring up to each other. Of course, (a) Earthlink has to stay out of this stuff’s way! (b) So they’ll try to intimidate – or make SF intimidate – Meraki users to make them “get out of the way”, even though use of wifi is in fact, first-come first-served and Earthlink be damned. [Let them try such tactics and see what lawsuits both they and SF will face, to encroach upon the consumed public commons for commercial gain.]

    And, such use (Merakis) is as far as wifi should go. I believe Meraki makes no promises, which is as it should be. Earthlink has no business making promises, but they foolishly do.

    All the time spent pushing the commercial wifi network is just wasted. If you want a connection suitable for your use as an upstanding semi-tech-head, or anyone who uses the internet to get stuff done, then you want OPTICAL FIBER and that is ALL you should want from SF (do the wifi on your own time on your own dime.)

    And you need to start telling Newsom, DTIS and any wifi-sympathetic supervisors to ABANDON THE COMMERCIAL WIFI; SHUT UP ABOUT WIFI; AND START TALKING ABOUT FIBER.

    To ‘give a flip’ to wifi, then, tell SF to offer discounts on Meraki equipment to anyone who promises to install one to serve their neighbors. To serve the underserved, run fiber to their places and do it before the next election – this can be done, I bet. And hand out more Merakis to them (the folks who use those local centers.)

    See the site: I suggest that is the network we want, and the sooner we get it, the sooner we’ll be much, much happier.

    – Eric Dynamic

  2. San Francisco Photos (unregistered) on July 20th, 2007 @ 10:42 am

    This all sounds great! Can’t wait for it all to happen in our neighborhood!

  3. The Probe (unregistered) on July 21st, 2007 @ 4:17 am

    >anyone who uses the internet to get stuff done, >then you want OPTICAL FIBER
    that’s ridiculous.
    i can work [edit, compile, email] comfortably at
    56k and slower.

    it’s the futzing around … games, www image/video
    surfing, downloading etc that wants more bandwidth.

  4. Joe Harvey (unregistered) on August 3rd, 2007 @ 5:53 pm

    Is this THE Eric Dynamic of UF/Murphry Hall fame??? Sir Joseph of Harvey seeks enlightenment.

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