Noe Valley Voice May 2008

Tech Firm Brings Free Wireless to Noe Homes

By Corrie M. Anders

Kenneth Libeson is totally wired. Not only is Libeson connected to the Internet through his cable company, but his house has also become a "hotspot" for free wi-fi, wireless access to the Internet.

The 29th Street resident is among a growing number of Noe Valleyans who are taking advantage of a technology firm's effort to provide wi-fi at no cost to San Francisco residents and businesses.

"It's fantastic," says Libeson, a systems engineer for a hedge fund who uses his new wi-fi for iPhone and iPod Touch connections.

The company, Meraki Inc. of Mountain View, rolled out its "Free the Net" campaign last year in the Mission District and the Haight. It began focusing on Noe Valley this March. So far, approximately 6,500 users have logged on to the firm's wi-fi network.

Company officials say wireless access was available in more than half of Noe Valley as of mid-April--with blanket coverage promised by the middle of July.

"That's our goal," says Lois Schonberger, the firm's project manager in San Francisco. "When you can walk down the street anywhere in Noe Valley and you can get free wireless, we'll consider our job done."

Meraki is a two-year-old startup that is trying to pull off what Google Inc. and Earthlink couldn't. The giant search engine firm Google had joined with Earthlink, an Internet service provider, in offering to build a municipal network that would make wireless access available citywide for about $21 a month. But Earthlink backed out of the deal (with the City of San Francisco) last August, when it ran into financial difficulties.

Meraki's approach is different. Its strategy is to give away hundreds of low-powered radio "repeaters," or signal relayers, to residents for installation on their rooftops, balconies, and windows.

"We're kind of the little guy. Instead of partnering with the city and building on public spaces, we're partnering with the people of San Francisco," Schonberger says. "This community-based approach is what makes it unique."

'Noe Is Our Laboratory'

Meraki, which recently got $20 million in venture capital funding, is testing its equipment and getting community involvement to showcase that it has the ability to build a worldwide network. The company plans to make money by selling its equipment to other countries.

"We can go to the rest of the world and say we did it in San Francisco and we can do it for the rest of the world," Schonberger says. "Noe Valley is our laboratory."

Early on, the experiment caught the attention of some local residents through word of mouth and the company's website. Company representatives also showed up April 19 at the Noe Valley Farmers' Market, where they handed out information pamphlets and signed up a number of residents who agreed to have the radio repeaters installed at their homes.

Since March, Schonberger says 350 local residents have volunteered to "host" the devices, which forward radio signals from one repeater to another. The company has installed about 10 football-size repeaters, which each cover three to four city blocks, and approximately 75 indoor repeaters, which are about the size of a deck of cards, in Noe Valley.

The repeaters create a "spider web" of high-speed, broadband coverage. Internet users do not need a repeater to log on and can simply piggyback on the network. (Just log on to Meraki's wi-fi system as you would any wireless network, search for wireless networks in your range, and a list of all available networks will pop up. If you see a "Free the Net" signal, click on it and you will be logged on to the Internet.)

Libeson was one of the first locals to sign on with Meraki, which complements the Internet access he already gets through his cable company.

"This free wireless is the perfect solution" for guests who visit his home and bring their laptops, says Libeson. For one, he doesn't have to give them his password to sign on.

And he says "it's easier" to access the Internet through his iPod or iPhone "without having to go through the rigmarole of entering an ID and everything else."

Bernie's Cafe Logs On

Bernadette Melvin, who owns Bernie's coffee shop on 24th Street near Noe, is another convert. She has provided customers with free wireless since she opened last summer. In April, she added Meraki's wireless access.

Melvin says Meraki's community-based effort appealed to her. "When I found out what the company is all about and what they hope to do," she says, "I couldn't help but get involved."

Melvin says she plans to wait two months to make sure there are no bugs in Meraki's system, and then drop her original wi-fi company.

Not everyone who uses the Meraki network should get rid of paid Internet service, however.

Schonberger says her company's network can serve as the primary hookup at home for light users who send e-mails or do research.

But "we're not going to encourage you to cancel your subscription" if you are a heavy user with "a lot of security concerns or are conducting business from home," she says.

If you want to "host" a repeater, Schonberger says the company is looking for residents and business owners who have rooftops with clear sight lines and few obstructions inhibiting radio signals.

"What we're really looking for is volunteers to call and say my roof has a great view," says Schonberger. Those interested in either the rooftop or indoor repeater can sign up at the company's website at