Meraki Unwires SF’s Neediest

Even if San Francisco’s high-profile, city-wide Wi-Fi network with EarthLink and Google was a fundamental flop, residents of the city that need it the most could still get some free wireless broadband. Meraki Networks, a San Francisco-based startup that makes mesh networking gear is building an ad-hoc San Francisco Wi-Fi network called “Free the Net.” At a press conference on Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas plan to announce a project that includes Meraki’s Wi-Fi networks throughout San Francisco’s affordable housing communities.

We’re not sure the extent of Newsom’s announcement, but supporting Meraki is the least the mayor can do after the previously botched San Francisco Wi-Fi network. And in any case, Meraki is actually footing the bill for the entire ad-hoc free Wi-Fi network, including the affordable housing section. Biswas says the cost of the entire network is in the low several millions.

Biswas says Meraki will set up its system of Wi-Fi repeaters and Internet broadband access in “all” of the low-income housing communities in San Francisco, including the Altamont Hotel, where Newsom and Biswas will make the announcement. This is the latest part of the company’s “Free the Net” project and Biswas tells us that the company will have access points in every neighborhood in the entire city by the end of the year.

In the past, EarthLink and Google were both linked to a Wi-Fi effort in San Francisco that really didn’t go anywhere due to political roadblocks. Both companies have backed away from their MuniFi efforts.

Google, however, was one of those who invested in the seed round Meraki raised in November 2006. The mesh gear maker raised $20 million in a Series B round from Sequoia Capital, DAG Ventures and Northgate Capital back in January. Meraki could also be taking a page from Google when it comes to testing out ad-serving to support a free network. Biswas tells us that the company has tested out some contextual ads over the network.

City-wide Wi-Fi networks have been proving to not be viable in many cities and communities, but Meraki’s type of very low-cost, ad-hoc networks seems to be best suited for the technology. For just a few million, a company like Meraki can slowly add localized Wi-Fi hotspots in communities that actively want and will use the technology. Newsom certainly wants to work with the company to close San Francisco’s digital divide. We’ll check out the press conference later today and snap some pics of the mayor’s do — and the unwiring festivities.