Meraki Offers New SF Muni Hope

Meraki Networks Inc. , the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinoff that wants to "unwire the world," has grabbed $20 million in VC funding and is trying to do what others have tried and failed to do: install a citywide free wireless network in San Francisco.

Sequoia Capital , Northgate Capital, and DAG ventures have provided the funding.

Meraki isn't trying to rent out private space to install the network as EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) did before it. Instead, the firm plans to spend money distributing up to 15,000 of its WiFi mesh devices free to private citizens. More than 40,000 users are covered in its "Free the Net" program in San Francisco already, the company claims. (See Friday Funding Roundup.)

Meraki's mesh technology will combine signals from hundreds or thousands of low-power radio repeaters installed on rooftops, balconies, and windows. Through communication with Meraki central servers and smarts worked into the repeaters, the firm claims it can deliver almost 1 Mbit/s of internet access connectivity to users. (See Meraki Expands in SF.)

The concept isn't hugely dissimilar to the public access model pushed by Spanish upstart Fon . That company allows users that buy its $5 access point to run their own hotspots from their cable or DSL connections. Other FON users get access to the hotspot for free; anyone else pays $3 a day. The user can set how much bandwidth the public is allowed to access. (See Fun With FON.)

Using public goodwill rather than private property could help to remove some the cost and associated political issues that tripped up Earthlink's more ambitious plans to unwire San Francisco. (See Muni Meltdown.)

Like other mesh deployments, however, Meraki's project could still face coverage and signal strength issues as the WiFi radios struggle to deal with indoor access and the city landscape. Meraki says it has "identified and worked around more than 20,000 sources of interference" in the trial deployments of the San Francisco project.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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