Meraki's Free Muni Wi-Fi Threatens Telcos, Cables, ISPs

So 21-month-old Meraki Networks will provide San Francisco with free Wi-Fi this year, and they’ll do it at a cost of only a few million dollars.

How did this toddler startup succeed where EarthLink and Google failed? Through user-generated infrastructure. Rather than shouldering the costs of installation and maintenance itself, Meraki is putting the onus on San Francisco residents: Volunteers will set up Meraki’s 15,000 radio repeaters in—and on the rooftops of—their own homes and businesses. 

This is a win for Meraki, which hopes to use San Francisco’s success to market their gear in developing countries with dense populations, like Brazil and India. It’s also certainly a win for San Francisco residents. But if the idea spreads, it could hammer subscription revenue for internet, phone, and cable companies (e.g., T, TWC, VZ).

Some wireless communities on college campuses—prototypes for the Wi-Fi cities of tomorrow—have already seen the convergence of the internet, telephones, and television. Here at Dartmouth, the first university to go completely wireless, students call home on phones that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and watch live television on their computers. In short, there is only one communications service provider, and it serves the entire community.

Dartmouth is also about to enter the beta-testing phase for dual cell phone systems that will provide students with free cell phone use on campus as well. If that technology becomes commercialized, cell phone providers won’t be immune to subscription model death, either.
Google, one of Meraki’s backers, is the obvious choice to take municipal Wi-Fi nationwide. If it happens, communications companies will have to adapt to free Wi-Fi the same way entertainment companies had to adapt to file-sharing.

SAI contributor Kelsey Blodget is a senior at Dartmouth College, where she was editor of The Dartmouth’s weekly magazine.

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