Startup Aims to Revive SF Free WiFi Initiative

According to a story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, startup Meraki is trying to succeed where Earthlink and Google failed: providing free WiFi to the residents of San Francisco:

The closely held Mountain View, Calif., start-up says the free San Francisco wireless project — which doesn’t involve city funding — is a test of technology it has developed for building low-cost, large-scale networks, generating some revenue from small ads viewed by users. Meraki last summer began offering free-Wi-Fi Internet access to residents of a roughly two-square-mile swath of San Francisco and says it currently has 40,000 users.

Meraki’s approach is to use lower-cost equipment and rely on consumer volunteers who install small Meraki boxes in their homes, known as “repeaters,” that help spread the wireless Internet signal. The playing-card-box-size gear, which Meraki provides free to San Francisco residents who contact it, can be attached to a window with suction cups and helps extend the distance the wireless Internet signal can travel. It needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet.

The Google-Earthlink effort was mired in city politics and then a troubled Earthlink backed away after the project appeared more costly than originally thought. The Meraki “distributed” approach is very different and appears to have the possibility of success if residents can see and understand the value of installing the boxes. I would think that they could pretty quickly.

There was considerable hype and anticipation surrounding municipal WiFi, which seems to have all but disappeared in the past year. But efforts like this might revive the effort. Meraki, like other WiFi providers, serves ads to subsidize the costs of its network and the boxes. If the initiative succeeds in SF or other cities — Meraki is set to announce funding according to the WSJ — the company could build out what becomes one of the most precise and effective local ad networks.

Indeed, one thing that’s interesting here is the geotargeting precision that comes with WiFi; it makes location awareness much more effective both on the desktop and for mobile devices without GPS (even with GPS). Broader WiFi coverage also gives some number of people confidence to buy alternative wireless Internet devices (e.g., Nokia 810, iPod Touch) not tied to any wireless carrier.

One of the predictions that I previously made but neglected to include in the list I published the other day is that geotargeting and local ad networks will get much better and more precise this year.

Related: I saw this comment/speculation on the TechCrunch post:

Whether or not Meraki can prove that local ads will bring in enough money to cover its costs, though, is a different question. Meraki will show single-line text ads from Google that are localized as well as contextual ads from Yelp. Even Meraki CEO Biswas is not sure there is a big enough inventory of local ads to support an ad-driven model…

The answer is that if the location targeting is there and marketers “get” the value of the “last mile” that local represents the inventory will come. There are already hundreds of thousands of advertisers online that use local/geotargeting in some fashion (some of those are on display networks). There is in fact enough inventory now, if Meraki can tap it and there will certainly be more in the future if the company rises to a sufficient level of coverage and visibility.

One thing that people continue to misunderstand is that local is not simply about SMBs; it’s about retailers and brands as well. It’s about directing someone to where they can buy something or otherwise transact — offline.

Here’s some additional detail on the plan from the SF Chronicle.


3 Responses to “Startup Aims to Revive SF Free WiFi Initiative”

  1. Says:

    Startup Aims to Revive SF Free WiFi Initiative

    Greg Sterling writes about Meraki, the Silicon Valley wireless startup that is aiming to solve a problem that Google and Earthlink had taken up but gave up: providing free WiFi blanket to all those wonderful folks in San Francisco. Meraki was in the n…

  2. Meraki Pushes For Free WiFi In San Francisco » Webomatica - Technology and Entertainment Digest Says:

    […] Free WiFi is having another go in San Francisco. Basically, corporate Earthlink and bureaucratic nonsense couldn’t get it working. […]

  3. WiFi Triangulation and Geotargeting « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Triangulation and Geotargeting One of the things I predicted for this year is advances in location awareness and geotargeting online. Along those lines . . […]

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