Saturday, August 18, 2007

Free the Net? -- an end user view

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

Meraki will build a one-square-mile free Wi-Fi network that will span a few select San Francisco neighborhoods. The network will be built with Meraki wireless mesh gear and will cost around $50,000. The company will also pay for DSL connections to power the network. ...

Meraki’s CEO and founder Sanjit Biswas calls the plan an experiment and a showcase of what the company’s low cost Wi-Fi equipment can do. It’s also a savvy marketing play and if the network is successful it’ll show that community-backed wide-area Wi-Fi using the right equipment doesn’t need to be a bureaucratic hassle.

The network itself has nothing to do with the current Earthlink/Google Wi-Fi deal, and on the pace of that negotiation, Biswas says “we’re frustrated . . .everyone has been frustrated.”

Remember Google is also a Meraki investor, but Biswas says Google is interested in getting behind broadband access in whatever form.

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.


Kay Dennison said...

Our mayor wanted to make downtown a free wifi area. The problem is nobody goes downtown,

eric dynamic said...

I wish the Meraki net well, but people have to understand that it is partly a grassroots effort. The nodes can be individually configured, so it might be possible for some people on the net to impair traffic flows - Meraki has to establish "standard practices".

As I recall from examining the node's configuration screen, the nodes don't have an ability to filter traffic (regulate bandwidth use, yes; stop specific protocols, no.)

What you are seeing with the unreachability of SMTP is due to the network(s) to which the nodes are attached. I'll bet you $3.57 that you're blaming Meraki for a problem with PacBell's (=SBC=AT&T) network. They blocked port 25 access for sure and we had to make our external users switch to using AUTH and port 587 (the alternate port number is essential.) There is anyway webmail access to a provider's services if they offer it.

Faster than Comcast - ay? People should take note of that!

In the end, the motivation for wifi was supposed to be to reach the underserved. Very few users really need to use wifi to get online and most of those who do are still out in the cold.

The SCREAMING issue though is that the wifi proposal became obsolete while it was being tossed between the Mayor and the Supes. WIFI is OBSOLETE as a wide-area transport technology. The people of SF should focus instead on Optical Fiber because that is the future - and what a future. You will get ONE GIGABIT to start with - for something like half the cost of your current telco connection. The telcos will simply NOT OFFER THIS for at least a decade, because all they want to do is squeeze the last cents and mils out of their copper franchise. WE here in SF could be largely done building such a network by 2012-2013 if we start NOW.

I ask everyone to quit thinking about wifi - it is just a distraction for almost everyone. Think instead about FIBER and start wanting it and making your desires known to your Supervisor. We have to make them start discussing FIBER. They have shied away from talking about it and Newsom treats it like poison - too bad for the tens of thousands of people who would like to start using it as soon as possible.

I do wonder about "branding" - little commercial-lets in the screen are unwarranted and should be removed. I suspect the reason anyone sees that is they are on a network being FED by a Meraki-supplied broadband line, so if it's your dime you can brand it (and a corporation wants to) and that if you were on a Meraki net being fed by Joe User's connection, you wouldn't see those things.

Commercial ads suck - I say get rid of them ALL and start over after a ten-year vacation.

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