Meraki, Volunteers Bring Free Wi-Fi to San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — Meraki Networks is bringing free wireless Internet connections to users here, using a "Free the Net" campaign that encourages volunteers to install Meraki-provided repeaters in their windows that beam wi-fi signals to their neighborhoods.

In less than a month, more than 1,000 people have responded, creating a network that currently extends several square miles and has an estimated 5,500 users.

"That would be great. We'd be able to get more subscribers and, hopefully, more money," Peter Acworth, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Kink.com, told XBIZ. "Especially if they can access it in the privacy of their own homes. When you're in airports or public places, you can't really look at our sites. But if it goes into people's homes, that means that more people are going to be online. And more people on the Internet is definitely a good thing for us. When people first go online, porn is the first thing they look for."

The Meraki "mesh technology" system uses a small router, the Meraki Mini, a wireless router about the size of a deck of cards. The Mini also can work as a repeater for an existing Internet network, extending the wireless range. The Free the Net network is based on this function.

The network, one of an estimated 1,000 networks set up by Meraki around the world, is being built while San Francisco leaders continue to argue over a proposed municipal Wi-Fi network. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has negotiated a deal with Google and EarthLink that would let them build, own and maintain a wireless network on existing light poles in exchange for $2 million from the city.

Users could get a slower connection for free and a faster connection for a fee. The deal has not been approved by the city's board of supervisors, and there are questions about user privacy, signal accessibility and connection speed.

"We want to bring Internet access to the next billion people in the world," Meraki Founder and CEO Sanjit Biswas said. "Wireless networks offer the best opportunity we have to connect the rest of this country and the rest of the world to the Internet and our mesh technology is offering an inexpensive and easy way to do it.

"What we're hoping is other people will see Free the Net and be inspired by it to set up other networks in their communities."

Meraki Networks was founded in 2006 by Ph.D. candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meraki technology has been used by more than 15,000 users in 25 countries during its beta period.

For more information on the "Free the Net" project, visit Meraki's Free the Net SF website.

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