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Community Wi-Fi comes to San Francisco

Company called Meraki will give away wireless routers in attempt to blanket the city with free Wi-Fi access.

While EarthLink and Google are still hammering out details of their citywide Wi-Fi contract with San Francisco officials, a company called Meraki plans on blanketing the city with free Wi-Fi using volunteers who will deploy and manage the equipment themselves.

The company, which sells indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi routers, will expand its free Wi-Fi router giveaway in San Francisco starting Wednesday in an effort to create a free community-based citywide Wi-Fi network throughout the entire city.

Meraki's indoor and outdoor routers typically cost $50 and $100, respectively. The company sells its routers to individuals or businesses who want to set up community Wi-Fi hot spots. The routers come with software that allows people to either charge for the service or offer it for free.

Meraki's routers are already being used to provide free Wi-Fi to 6,500 residents and businesses in San Francisco's Mission, Haight and Alamo Square neighborhoods. But now the company wants to expand this network to as many neighborhoods in San Francisco as it can.

"This is really just a showcase to prove that grassroots groups can provide free Wi-Fi," said Sanjit Biswas, CEO and co-founder of Meraki. "And it's an approach that gets a network up in a weekend rather than waiting months."

Meraki will rely on volunteers to run the network. Some of the available bandwidth will be provided by Meraki through agreements it has with broadband providers in San Francisco. But it will also rely on volunteers to share their own broadband access in some parts of the city. In this way, the concept is similar to a Wi-Fi service offered by the Spanish company Fon.

EarthLink and Google were selected by the city of San Francisco to build a Wi-Fi network that blankets the city. EarthLink plans to sell a commercial broadband service, but it will also offer free access for slower-speed services. The free network will be supported through advertising. But so far, construction hasn't even started in San Francisco, because the company is still negotiating the contract with San Francisco's city council.

Biswas said he doesn't really see his company competing with the EarthLink-Google network.

"Our network is different from what they're trying to do," he said. "A lot of citywide Wi-Fi deployments are geared toward public safety. We are targeting consumers."

An EarthLink spokesman declined to comment on Meraki's efforts in San Francisco. He also declined to comment on the contract talks with San Francisco city officials.