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

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This story appears in the July 2008 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

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