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Public Offering

A grass-roots wireless network is flourishing in San Francisco. How was it built?

Citywide public Wi-Fi networks have had a rocky history. Leading municipal Wi-Fi player EarthLink has all but pulled out of the game, abandoning proposed networks in Houston and San Francisco and leaving an ambitious project in Philadelphia unfinished. "It seems like there were two problems. One, the networks were really expensive. Two, it takes too long," says Sanjit Biswas, 26, co-founder of wireless networking startup Merakiin San Francisco. With co-founders John Bicket, 28, and Hans Robertson, 31, also at the helm, Meraki focuses on inexpensive, easy-to-use hardware stocked with intelligent mesh networking software. The company recently pulled in $20 million in venture capital.

San Francisco is home to a living, breathing example of how a grass-roots wireless network can flourish in a city. Meraki's Free the Net project gives away free wireless repeaters to private citizens and business volunteers in the city. Says Biswas, "With the Meraki model, you're able to put these little devices up pretty much anywhere. In San Francisco, our whole network is deployed on private assets--windows, balconies and rooftops." More than 70,000 users have already accessed the network, and Meraki aims to reach every neighborhood in the city by the end of the year. This peer-to-peer approach takes care of another previous municipal Wi-Fi issue: poor coverage of indoor spaces and tall buildings. Anyone who needs to improve their coverage area can install a repeater.

Homegrown wireless networks using Meraki's basic $49 indoor access point and repeater are popping up in other places across the country and around the globe. Entrepreneurs who need to cover an office space or offer Wi-Fi as an amenity to their customers can easily set up a Meraki-based network to share their broadband connection. "It's a pretty organic process," says Biswas. "The people who are using it help to grow it. It can be incrementally deployed so you don't need to make a million-dollar investment upfront, and you don't need to get city hall involved." So as volunteer and independent networks cover wide areas with mesh networking fueled by a few broadband lines, public Wi-Fi may start to look like a grapevine--or even a patchwork quilt.

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This article was originally published in the July 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Public Offering.

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