Here in San Francisco's Mission District, we're the target of a convoluted marketing scheme. Some weeks ago, posters went up on the usual telephone polls, asking if we want to take part in "Free the Net." A "Free the Net" option also appeared among visible wireless networks. Not surprisingly around here, many were interested, including this household.
And so, not long later, we got a package from a company called Meraki containing the "Mini repeater" above. We stuck it in our front window. The company's map of users, from its website, shows a rapidly growing cluster of users in the Mission-Guerrero corridor.
So what is this about? Given that quite a few folks are now (in theory -- more later) getting their wireless through this project, there is little accessible information on line about what Meraki is up to. The best coverage I have found has been at GigaOm, here, here, and here. Apparently
Some months into this, Meraki claims nearly 8000 users and plans to expand citywide. In other markets, Meraki sells the Mini repeaters for about $50 -- so handing them out free is an audacious form of advertising to a pretty tech savvy and tech hungry neighborhood.
How well does it work? Here's my household's anecdotal experience: four users, three different experiences.
For one, it works fine in every way. She is not bothered by the small ads in a toolbar in her browser windows. But she is the person who pays for our pre-existing Comcast cable network and that works fine for her, so she doesn't much care about "Free the Net."
Two users successfully use "Free the Net" for web surfing. For them, it is faster than the house's Comcast cable, so that's fine. They can't send outgoing email. Because they haven't figured out how to switch to their own ISP's smtp accounts, Meraki's DSL won't pass on their messages. Neither sends much mail from here anyway, so they are happy enough, though confused. They can email from net mail portals and are willing to do so.
I can't use "Free the Net" at all. Whenever I do tabbed browsing in Firefox on this network, something locks up the browser. There may also be some kind of popup blocker problem. I can get mail, but although I have "smtpauth" personalities that work well in hotels and the likes of Starbucks, I can't send mail from Free the Net. So I don't use it.
Now Meraki can't be expected to provide free tech supporter to a mixed bag of users with all sorts of equipment and all levels of sophistication -- but if their wireless offering is less simple and less transparent than that offered by most hotels, a lot of people aren't going to be able to use it. A lot of those who can't use it are almost certainly the same ones who most need free broadband access.
Free the Net is an experiment I wish well. I have no faith that Gavin Newsom's deal with Earthlink is going to bring universal broadband to San Francisco. But what Free the Net offers now seems not quite ready for prime time.