Look Out, Comcast and Verizon: Bicoastal Startups Are Bringing Free Wi-Fi to Harvard Square (and Elsewhere Soon, We Hope)

Why isn’t there free Wi-Fi everywhere? I ask this as I sit in an Espresso Vivace in Seattle, typing away and enjoying free wireless (and a truly terrific latte—easily an 8.5 on the Huang scale). Being new to the city and still in the process of setting up connectivity, I’m acutely aware of any and all hotspots I find.

It seems large-scale municipal Wi-Fi hasn’t fared well lately. Until recently, EarthLink operated networks in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans, but it was taking huge losses and had to shut them down. (Turns out the systems were too expensive to install and maintain.)

So I was very interested to hear about the free public Wi-Fi service that switched on yesterday in a ceremony in Harvard Square, one of my old haunts. I always wondered why Cambridge didn’t have its own network—you can sometimes get onto local university networks, but it can be a pain. It just shouldn’t be that hard.

The story of the Harvard project goes back to August 2006. Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA), says she was walking through Harvard Yard when she bumped into Cambridge city councillor Henrietta Davis, who chairs the council’s cable TV, telecom, and public utilities committee. Davis mentioned that the city was interested in providing Wi-Fi access, primarily for children and families. “There had been some appropriation of money for this project, and I thought, boy, I want to get a piece of that action,” says Jillson.

Easier said than done. A year went by while Jillson worked with the city on the technology and legal ramifications. Meanwhile the technology kept changing, and the city and the association eventually came to the decision that public money would be better spent on Internet access for people living in affordable housing.

So Jillson began looking for an outside engineering company that would help set up a reasonably priced network. Mesh networks tend to be cheaper to build and operate than traditional Wi-Fi networks—instead of costing more than $1,000 per node, mesh-network routers can cost only a few hundred dollars each.

Enter Meraki, an MIT spinoff based in Mountain View, CA, which is backed in part by Google and Sequoia Capital. (Meraki is a Greek word that means doing something with soul, creativity, or passion.) The Silicon Valley company was founded by MIT grads, all of whom did their training in electrical engineering and computer science—CEO Sanjit Biswas, CTO John Bicket, and VP of product management Hans Robertson. The company’s goal is to provide affordable Internet access to what it calls “the next billion” people—from low-income housing residents in the U.S. and flat dwellers in London to villagers in India.

Last October, Jillson bought 32 of Meraki’s wireless router units and planned to roll out the service that fall. Just one problem—she was no expert, and the association didn’t have the technical talent on-staff to get a wireless network up and running. “I was personally, the word might be ‘flummoxed,’ by how to really take this and do it properly,” she says. More months went by, until this spring Jillson put her foot down and set a hard deadline: the network had to be up by the date of Harvard’s commencement, which is today. From there, Meraki contacted a Boston Wi-Fi startup that they are partnering with, Anaptyx, to get the network up and running.

As Ken Carnesi, CEO of Anaptyx (and a recent Boston College grad), puts it, “We got the call last Wednesday, that it needed to be up in a week.” Carnesi’s team immediately set about installing the Meraki units on rooftops around Harvard Square and coordinated the network. It should cover a circle about half a mile in radius centered on Out of Town News, says Carnesi, and should work reasonably well indoors as well as out. “We were able to do it for a total cost of under $12,000,” he adds.

Founded in June 2007 by Carnesi and his former boss Jon Rust at Wachovia (Carnesi was an intern there), Anaptyx is currently closing its second round of angel funding. The company is targeting its wireless Internet service on apartments and condo buildings in the Boston and Washington DC areas, and is expanding to Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “We bring Wi-Fi into these buildings, usually rolled into the tenants’ rent. The landlord pays for it, but they still save a ton of money over Comcast or Verizon,” says Carnesi. “We’re trying to push people to get away from Comcast. The tenants move in and it’s all there, they don’t have to worry about contracts and all that.” (If only we at Xconomy were so lucky.)

Anaptyx also markets itself as a “green Wi-Fi” provider —the company’s setup is intended to save on carbon emissions (through more energy-efficient routers) and on hardware waste, such as the routers and cables that Comcast and other large providers typically throw away when people move out. Carnesi estimates savings of five pounds of e-waste per apartment unit per year.

At the ceremony and press conference marking the network’s launch yesterday, the Anaptyx founders and a local software rep from Meraki gathered with Jillson from HSBA and city officials to flip a ceremonial on/off switch. Then in a bit of drama, Carnesi says, “There was a crazy 72-year-old guy who wandered in and tested [the network] on his phone, so we were a little worried. But it worked.”

The rest of Cambridge will soon be trying it out. “We want it to work perfectly and we just don’t know what will happen when all of a sudden we get many users,” says Jillson. “The most important thing for us is to get it out there and make people understand this is the very beginning of the process, and we will continue to improve and expand.” In any case, as the whole project cost only $20,000, it might well serve as a model for future public Wi-Fi systems.

In the coming weeks, the bicoastal partners Meraki and Anaptyx will work to expand the network a little further. Jillson says the city has also expressed interest in expanding free wireless service east to Central Square, possibly using solar-powered wireless routers.

So Cambridge, I’m jealous of your connectivity. But you know what you still don’t have? An Espresso Vivace.

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