Start-up to launch free wireless network in S.F.

A Mountain View, Calif.-based start-up is planning to build a free wireless Internet network in central San Francisco, and all residents have to do put a small wireless router supplied by the company in their window or rooftop. Meraki Networks plans, within months, to bring free wireless Internet access to about 15,000 residents who live in parts of the Mission, Castro, Duboce Park, Lower Haight and Alamo Square neighborhoods.

Residents and businesses in those areas can sign up to receive a free Meraki wireless router that will serve as relay points for data transmissions across the mesh network. The devices, which normally sell for about $50, extend the transmissions about 150 feet into buildings and enable neighbors to use the network as well. Meraki founder and Chief Executive Sanjit Biswas says the surfing and download speeds won't be as fast as DSL but will still be broadband speed, anywhere from half a megabit to 1 megabit per second--fast enough to watch videos on YouTube.

This network is likely to be up and running before the controversial Google-EarthLink network is. The to provide citywide wireless Internet access, with a free service provided by Google and a faster service provided by EarthLink for a monthly fee, but opposition has prevented the deal from being given final approval from the city's board of supervisors.

Opponents fear the Google service will be ad-supported like many of Google's existing Internet services are; that the plan lacks adequate consumer privacy protections; and that the signals will miss many residents because they will not extend deep enough inside of buildings. As a solution Google has said that residents would be able to buy $50 devices--from Meraki--to broaden the reach of the signals. Google was an angel investor in Meraki and has purchased Meraki's devices for the free wireless network the search giant set up in Mountain View.

Meraki's San Francisco test "was not designed in anticipation of the Google (wireless) project, but it would be compatible with that model," Biswas says. Meraki has not decided on a business model yet for its "experiment" in San Francisco, but has not ruled out advertising or sponsorships, he says.

Meraki helps businesses, organizations and communities create mesh wireless networks and has provided equipment for low-income housing projects, as well as projects in Venezuela and Slovakia.