Free Wi-Fi Is Up for Grabs

Opinion: As EarthLink falls on hard times, San Franciscans eye a startup.

San Francisco free Wi-Fi is dead. Long live San Francisco free Wi-Fi!

EarthLink, the Internet ISP and erstwhile municipal Wi-Fi build-out partner for various U.S. cities, has hit upon some rough financial times—rough enough that the company has recently opted to slash half its work force and dramatically scale back its muni Wi-Fi ambitions.

My home base of San Francisco is one of those U.S. cities, and when word came out that San Franciscos deal with EarthLink and Google to roll out free wireless Internet to every corner of the city had fallen apart, I was feeling pretty disappointed.

The state of wireless data access right now leaves much to be desired. The last thing that cell phone carriers want is to deliver the sort of service Id like to consume: a plain pipe to the Internet that I can access through any computing device I choose. 802.11b/g networking is perfect for this—its broadly supported among devices and operating systems, and, through the magic of unlicensed spectrum, you can do it all without tangling with the Federal Communications Commission.


Read here about three cities that are having municipal wireless success.

Even though the EarthLink-Google deal threatened to saddle San Francisco with a muni Wi-Fi monopolist for a term of 16 years and wouldve meant free Wi-Fi at a throttled rate, with broadband speeds reserved for those who paid $22 a month to EarthLink for the service, I was feeling optimistic about the deal.

EarthLinks service would offer an alternative to the cable/telco duopoly to which the citys broadband options are now constrained, and the free access wouldve allowed me to pop online to check my mail or otherwise fiddle with the Internet from any quarter of the city in which I live and work.

The potential benefits were less clear for EarthLink. While the company would be the sole enhanced service provider for the network, there was no guarantee that enough San Franciscans would become subscribers to make the investment worthwhile for EarthLink.

A better way forward would be for those of us in San Francisco who would benefit from a citywide wireless network to build one of our own. As luck would have it, the city has the opportunity to do just that, with the help of a Google-funded startup named Meraki thats out to expand Internet access through community deployed Wi-Fi mesh networking.

Meraki is now distributing its wireless mesh repeaters to individuals in San Francisco, some of whom will feed the network by sharing a portion of their available bandwidth. Merakis mesh model looks interesting and looks like it has the potential to deliver to the city the free, open-ended wireless network we seek, leaving San Franciscos local government free to train its attention and its dollars on longer-term broadband goals—such as extending fiber as broadly through the city as possible.


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