Free Wi-Fi is coming to San Francisco. For real this time

Meraki plans to expand its innovative Wi-Fi network throughout the city

Published January 4, 2008 6:46PM (EST)

Meraki, a clever start-up with the noble mission of bringing Internet access to the world's poorest places, announced today that it will expand its project in San Francisco -- one of the world's richest places -- citywide. By the end of the year, the company plans to have set up enough radio repeaters to blanket the city in free Web access.

Unlike other municipal Wi-Fi plans -- for instance, the Google/Earthlink endeavor for S.F. that came to a halt last year -- Meraki's avoids bureaucratic and capital-financing hurdles through the magic of decentralization.

The company sells and gives out radio repeaters to people willing to share their cable or DSL Internet lines; the repeaters quickly, silently connect to each other, creating a Wi-Fi web in the sky. With enough repeaters, the network can dance around many of the geographical difficulties that trouble traditional municipal Wi-Fi routers, which are mounted on towers or tall buildings.

By sharing many Internet connections, Meraki -- which is financed, in part, by Google -- aims to deliver access speeds of 1-megabit per second.

The service is already operating in a small section of the city. The company tells that iPhone users particularly like the service -- they say that Meraki service offers faster Web access than AT&T's cellular wireless plan.

The San Francisco project is something like a proof-of-concept for the company. Its real mission is to "bring affordable Internet access to the next billion people." No joke, that makes me feel warm inside.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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