Between the nationwide decline of municipal Wi-Fi projects and the
stall in San Francisco's Google/Earthlink Wi-Fi plans, it's not
shocking to hear that other companies are coming up with their own
homegrown solutions for the tech savvy city. The one that's been
creating the most buzz in the Bay Area over the last couple of days
has been Meraki, with its audacious pledge to "free the net". With
funding from Google and Sequoia Capital, the Mountain View, California-
based company has recently announced its plans to expand its free
coverage from the two San Francisco neighborhoods it currently
blankets to an additional six communities within the city.

But here's the rub--even though Meraki has been generous enough to
donate the equipment, the deployment of the network relies heavily on
volunteers. Although the company has seen success in providing free Wi-
Fi in roughly 25 countries around the world, I wasn't sure how the
service could become a viable way to connect with its sub-municipal
scale and reliance on the generous and willing. To get the story
straight, I had a brief chat with Meraki CEO and Co-founder, Sanjit

"We don't think of ourselves as being in competition with the Google/
Earthlink deal," Biswas clarified during our phone conversation. "In
many ways we serve a different market. We can share more information
on and for WiMax connectivity you can come
to We're not trying to be the backbone
coverage for emergency services like police and fire departments, and
that's a big part of what Google and Earthlink are trying to do in San

Ironically, I think Biswas touched on an important point while
describing the role of Meraki's free service in a city setting. The
availability of e-mail and the ability to search YouTube on the go is
what most of us associate with municipal Wi-Fi, but the truth is
there's a much more complex element involved when the service is meant
to become part of a city's infrastructure. Building out a speedy and
adequately blanketed Wi-Fi network is not only expensive, but also a
logistical nightmare when it comes to guaranteeing near flawless
service for the public safety sector. Rather than trying to provide a
de facto solution for all situations, Meraki's founders made the wise
decision of focusing on enabling a community to buildout its own
network for casual use.

There was still one thing that was bothering me--what's with the whole
volunteer element? "Most of the people who contact us about
volunteering are interested in doing their part by putting a booster
on their windowsill," Biswas explained. "But we still encounter a fair
share of people that are actually interested in sharing some of their
unused bandwidth to provide connectivity for the community."

If the citizens of San Francisco can methodically build their own
patchwork network, I'm left to wonder who really merits from the
Google/Earthlink deal. But does Meraki really have what it takes to
even knockout a lot of the floundering muni-Wi-Fi projects out there?
With all the bureaucratic red tape surrounding most muni projects it's
possible, but the company would need a lot of visibility and a
continuous supply of altruistic community to pull it off. Until
progress is made with Google/Earthlink, or we see the rollout of WiMax/
Xohm, I'm willing to give it a shot.

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