Long Live San Francisco Free WiFi

San Francisco free WiFi is dead. Long live San Francisco free WiFi!

Earthlink, the Internet ISP and erstwhile municipal WiFi build-out partner for various US cities, has hit upon some rough financial times–rough enough that the company has recently opted to slash half its workforce and scale back dramatically on its Muni WiFi ambitions.

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

The state of wireless data access right now leaves quite a bit to be desired. The last thing that cell phone carriers want is to deliver the sort of service I’d 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–it’s broadly supported among devices and operating systems, and, through the magic of unlicensed spectrum, you can do it all without tangling with the FCC.

Even though the Earthlink/Google deal threatened to saddle SF with a Muni WiFi monopolist for a term of 16 years, and would’ve meant free WiFi 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.

Earthlink’s service would offer an alternative to the cable/telco duopoly to which the city’s broadband options are now constrained, and the free access would’ve 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 firm 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 just that, with the help of a Google-funded startup named Meraki that’s out to expand Internet access through community deployed WiFi 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. Meraki’s mesh model looks interesting, and looks like it has the potential to deliver the city the free, open-ended wireless network we seek, leaving San Francisco’s local government free to train its attention and its dollars on longer-term broadband goals–like extending fiber as broadly through the city as possible.