The city’s most recent muni Wi-Fi project collapsed in August when Earthlink concluded that the network was not financially viable. As city officials reeled from this defeat, a small Mountain View-based start-up quietly embarked on a unique experiment. Much like another well-known company in Mountain View, Meraki Networks grew out of a doctoral thesis project. The idea behind Meraki is that private citizens, empowered with technology, can link together to create large and inexpensive Wi-Fi networks.
Through its “Free the Net” program, Meraki initially supplied 500 San Francisco residents with the technology to wirelessly interconnect their broadband networks. The resulting ‘mesh’ network provides free connections to 40,000 people over two square miles, encompassing the city’s Mission, Lower Haight and Alamo Square neighborhoods. This innovative technology enables users to connect at speeds three times faster than promised by Earthlink in the city’s original plan.
In Meraki’s model, the government plays no role in the network’s design, operation, or expansion. Because Meraki relies on the cooperation of private citizens, there is no need to build on public property or use public funds. Most of the technology is solar-powered, eliminating even the use of public utilities. Free from the reach of city government, the Meraki pilot project has exceeded all expectations for cost and performance.
This success has enabled the company to attract over $20 million in venture capital investment. Last Friday, Meraki announced plans to extend coverage to the entire city by the end of 2008. The company’s CEO, Sanjit Biswas, projects that the cost “will come in at the low, single-digit millions,” compared to the $14 to $17 million estimated for Earthlink’s plan. This announcement prompted a statement from Mayor Newsom’s office, pledging to help “publicize and grow the network without the bureaucracy and politics that challenged our last effort to bring free Wi-Fi to San Francisco.”
The Mayor’s epiphany signals a new-found understanding that private networks can both connect the city’s iPhones, and bridge the digital divide. The top-down control exercised by government is not compatible with rapidly developing technologies. When the city imposed its rigid vision on Earthlink, the company could not adapt to changing market conditions, and its plan suffocated under the inflexible restrictions of “bureaucracy and politics.”
Meraki’s experiment demonstrates that city-wide Wi-Fi is achievable for a network driven by citizens, not government. It also illustrates another danger of government-subsidized municipal Wi-Fi networks. If the city had continued to prop up Earthlink’s floundering project, a small private venture like Meraki might have steered clear of San Francisco. Few start-ups would be willing to compete against a company supported by government resources and privileges.
Thankfully for San Francisco residents, Earthlink’s failure will enable innovators to meet the city’s changing broadband demands. As he embarks on a second term, Mayor Newsom should embrace his transition from Wi-Fi leader to Wi-Fi cheerleader.