San Francisco's Dueling Muni Wi-Fi Clouds

Since EarthLink killed off San Francisco's muni Wi-Fi project in 2007 after EarthLink CEO Rolla Huff took a long, cold look at the economics of the company's municipal plans, two grass-roots municipal efforts have been slowly percolating toward prominence in its stead. While neither network has gained citywide popularity by

Since EarthLink killed off San Francisco's muni Wi-Fi project in 2007 after EarthLink CEO Rolla Huff took a long, cold look at the economics of the company's municipal plans, two grass-roots municipal efforts have been slowly percolating toward prominence in its stead.

While neither network has gained citywide popularity by any means, networks powered by Meraki and FON have come tantalizing close to being interesting, particularly in a few localized neighborhoods. The Meraki network seems to have the strongest presence in the Mission and in the Haight, and Meraki currently claims almost 50,000 users across the city. Meanwhile, the FON network is far less centralized, featuring a smattering of hot-spot locations deployed thinly throughout many areas of the city.

The differences in coverage can be directly attributed to the underlying technological approaches -- and the marketing campaigns built to support them.

Meraki's network is a mesh -- users can host either an access location that has a broadband backhaul connection or an outdoor repeater for those who wish to extend the network without adding any bandwidth to it. Since Meraki is offering free repeaters to those willing to host them, neighborhoods with a couple backhauls can quickly grow in size as others add free repeaters to broaden and saturate the network's reach.

Back in 2006, FON kick-started its San Francisco network with a free router giveaway in Union Square, but in part because the marketing focus wasn't localized to a particular neighborhood, the network grew up in smatterings spread throughout the city. Technologically, this doesn't matter -- the FON hot spots really don't have anything to do with one another (other than sharing an authentication system). But from the perspective of the user, a diffuse network like this doesn't have a lot of value because there is no predictability about where it will appear.

Likely in response to this perception, FON this week announced a new router giveaway targeting businesses and residents in a single neighborhood -- the Castro.

My executive editor, Jason Brooks, is always scrounging around looking for more and better connectivity to feed his baby (a new iPod Touch), and had been investigating all the different Wi-Fi options within the city. He has expressed particular interest in both of these networks as ways to stay connected affordably (he is also weighing the pros and cons of the T-Mobile hot-spot network). Together, we decided that eWEEK Labs could (nay, should) share some of our test network bandwidth so we could take part in both of these networks (and let him wander around the city with more more Wi-Fi power).

However, our first steps have been a little rocky in both cases.

In Meraki's case, the problem is simple. We wanted to install a Meraki repeater as the first step of our deployment, but we cannot detect any other Meraki nodes from our building. The Meraki map shows the nearest nodes are between three and five blocks away -- which standard Wi-Fi clients are unable to detect, despite our location on the 9th floor of our building. Meraki may be offering repeaters for free to those willing to host them, but with the caveat that you have to be able to detect another Meraki device before they will send it to you. So instead, we'll have to acquire an indoor router or wait until someone closer to us adds to the network.

As for FON, I actually picked up a La Fonera router at the Union Square giveaway, but the device found its way into a desk drawer where it sat neglected until last week when I finally got around to registering for a FON user account. As I was installing the router, I noticed that the device firmware was several versions behind the build available on the FON Web site, so I decided to upgrade it to the latest and greatest before linking the device to my account.

As the upgrade was underway, the network cable attached to the device tangled with the wheels of my chair, which I discovered only as I rolled backwards and wrenched the patch cable from the device. End result? A dead router. The device never can seem to register for an IP address on my network, nor will it broadcast any Wi-Fi signals.

FON support confirmed my suspicions. The router is dead. However, I was surprised to learn that I was not supposed to upgrade the device at all, at least not without talking to a support representative first.

"I am afraid to tell you that your Fonera is dead. Regardless of the Internet cable coming out of the unit, the firmware update would have killed your La Fonera either way. That's why when you visit the Firmware update page and manually download it, we warn you that you should only download the firmware after consulting a FON customer care member or technician. This is because any perfectly functional Fonera will immediately become nonfunctional after the download, unless you have a Fonera+ which automatically downloads the upgraded firmwares. Manual firmware updates are one of the major contributors to nonfunctional Foneras."

I don't actually recall seeing that warning message when I did the install, but when I went back to double-check after support chastised me, indeed there was the warning. Obviously, I blew it off as the boilerplate that usually comes with firmware upgrades. But FON really, really means it. I have to say I really question the wisdom of placing the firmware so prominently on the Web site, since it is so dangerous. It seems like an unnecessary invitation for trouble. Nonetheless, I can't deny it -- I was warned.

Thankfully, FON support agreed to replace the device under warranty, so hopefully our little Wi-Fi project can get underway for real this time.