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Meraki teams with San Francisco for free Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi project in the city hits a major milestone, as the company announces plans to target low-income housing projects.

Update 1:20 p.m. PDT with comment from San Francisco's mayor.

Meraki, the San Francisco company that is providing free Wi-Fi to San Franciscans, is teaming up with the city to bring free Internet access to low-income housing projects as part of its plan to unwire every neighborhood in San Francisco.

On Tuesday, Meraki held a press conference with the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom, to kick off its latest initiative, which will add wireless coverage to 12 low-income housing projects in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. Meraki also plans to provide Wi-Fi Internet access to low-income housing owned by the city in other neighborhoods as well as provide free Wi-Fi to senior centers throughout the city by the end of the year.

About 150,000 of San Francisco's 860,000 residents are using the Meraki network, Newsom said. "We're a few years from having this city covered" with free Wi-Fi access, he added.

Meraki Chief Executive Sanjit Biswas and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announce the expansion of free Wi-Fi service at St. Anthony's center, which offers food, shelter, and computer training to low-income people. The map projected on the wall shows concentrations of San Franciscans using the Meraki Wi-Fi service in various neighborhoods in real time. Elinor Mills

To date, Meraki has provided its Wi-Fi gear and free access to the Internet to residents in 80 percent of San Francisco's major neighborhoods. The company plans to continue building the "Free the Net" network in 2009, deepening coverage in each neighborhood. Currently, the network spans roughly 10 to 13 square miles, a far cry from the city's proposed plan with EarthLink to blanket 49 square miles. But the Meraki network, which does not use city-owned assets to mount its gear, has grown tremendously. Six months ago only 2.5 to 3 square miles were covered with Meraki Wi-Fi.

Sanjit Biswas, CEO of the company, said that usage on the network is growing, despite the fact that San Francisco has one of the highest penetrations of broadband access in the country. Much of the usage is being driven by Apple's new iPhone. Biswas said that over the last couple of months since the iPhone 3G was announced, Meraki has seen more than 20 percent of its new users coming from the iPhone.

"The Meraki network is faster than AT&T's 3G network," he said. "So for users who know the Meraki signal is there, they prefer to jump on the free Wi-Fi network. "

Biswas said that users can also roam among Meraki hot spots seamlessly as long as they are traveling at a slow pace, like walking or riding the bus.

The Meraki network differs from municipal Wi-Fi networks because it costs the city and the people who use the network absolutely nothing. Other citywide networks, such as the ones that had been built by EarthLink, only provided limited free network access and usually required users to pay a fee for the service.

Meraki, which makes Wi-Fi equipment, gives away its small Wi-Fi repeaters and network gateways to residents who volunteer to deploy the equipment on rooftops or on their windowsills. In exchange for mounting the gear, Meraki picks up the tab for the Internet service and provides free access through the wireless network to anyone without advertising.

In neighborhoods where Meraki is deployed people can access the Meraki network while walking down the street or they can get a repeater for in-home coverage. Meraki acts as the network operator providing support for the service. But Meraki, which competes against Wi-Fi gear makers such as Cisco Systems, Tropos Neworks, and Bel Air, has no plans to replicate its completely free Wi-Fi network in other cities.

Stick this free gizmo in your window in San Francisco to boost the Meraki signal, for yourself and others. Meraki

San Francisco, which is where the company is based, serves as a test bed for the network, Biswas said. Meraki funds the expense of building and running the network through its research and development budget.

"We've already seen benefits of the network," he said. "It gives an opportunity to stress test the network and try out new radios. We can also get a better sense for what tools our customers will need to serve their customers."

Biswas said that working with the city to unwire its low-income housing developments served two purposes for Meraki. One, it allows the company to test deployments in larger apartment buildings, where Wi-Fi service can be offered as an amenity. Instead of working with individual residents to deploy the Meraki Wi-Fi repeaters, the city is allowing the company to deploy the repeaters in stairwells and hallways to provide indoor coverage, a service that Meraki's equipment customers around the world might want to replicate.

But Biswas added that Meraki also felt that it's free Wi-Fi test bed could also help the city bridge the digital divide.

"Meraki also has a social mission to help connect people to the Internet," he said. "So we felt we might as well do some good with our network by targeting the low-income housing to get people online."

The city plans to combine Meraki's free network access with other programs run by nonprofit groups that provide subsidized computers and technical training for residents.