Silicon Valley startup, Meraki, is using community-based “Free the Net” in San Francisco to create free citywide Wi-Fi. Launched in 2006, Meraki is based in Mountain View, Calif., and is partly funded by Google and Sequ

oia Capital. Founders are MIT graduates Sanjit Biswas, Hans Robertson, and John Bicket.

When contractor, Earthlink, decided citywide Internet service wasn’t financially possible in San Francisco, Meraki stepped in to show just the opposite. Since early 2007, Meraki has been broadening a free Wi-Fi network in San Francisco by providing residents with free, economical repeaters and funding the network out of its own pocket. Meraki plans to connect San Franciscans on one wireless network by the end of 2008 at well below the $14 - $17 million cost of the unsuccessful Earthlink network.

What makes their approach so successful, reported Fast Company, is “’Meraki’s strategy has been grassroots,’ says Esme Vos, who tracks municipal Wi-Fi projects on her site The company hasn’t ‘gotten stuck negotiating with City Hall.’”

The grassroots efforts involved getting help from volunteers who would welcome a mini radio device, known as a “repeater,” into their homes or onto their rooftops. Each repeater spreads the network a little further, bringing free Internet access to more and more residents and business owners. Currently, 70,000+ users are connecting in San Francisco. Roughly 750 repeaters are already installed; while at least 10,000 more are needed for the entire city.

"We're building a new kind of network," says Meraki cofounder John Bicket, reported by Fast Company. "Every time we add a volunteer, it expands.”

In the end, Meraki believes the entire San Francisco network will cost “in the low millions.” And, Meraki is picking up the tab to show that a citywide network can be put together inexpensively.

Volunteers in San Francisco can sign up online to be a part of the mesh network and thus broaden Internet access reach to other city dwellers.

Meraki originated from a MIT Ph.D. research project (Roofnet) that provided broadband wireless access to graduate students. The research resulted in Meraki getting its first project networking a low-income housing community in Portland, Oregon.

Meraki technology works by using repeaters to bounce wireless signals to one another thereby creating a “mesh network.” These mesh networks cover a larger geographic area and reach more users than other wireless networks by relying on the smart routing technology to increase range and network capacity.

Meraki’s business began to take off when Google took an interest in the repeaters, which range in price from $149 for indoors to $199 for outdoors, and purchased about 1,000 to create citywide Wi-Fi in Mountain View.

In January 2008, Meraki raised $20 million in a Series B round of fundraising. After San Francisco, Meraki expects to extend their technology around the world to cities, organizations, and groups of Wi-Fi individual users - all of whom will have to pay.

To date, Meraki has networks in over 100 countries. Their successful ventures include a Chilean fishing Village, coffee shops in New York, businesses in London, and villages in India.

By Kathleen Clark

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