Meraki Tries Its Own Network
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San Francisco already has more Wi-Fi than most cities, even without the chronically-delayed citywide network that's been held up by the politicos. So what's a little more?
What's going to be different with the square mile of free Wi-Fi intended to stretch from Mission Dolores Park up to Alamo Square Park is that it will be sponsored and operated as a free network by Meraki Networks, a company that has made its name so far by supplying equipment to others to build community-based networks.
"This is a way for us to build a big network and see it operate and see how the community networks come together," says Sanjit Biswas, CEO and co-founder of Meraki. "Our goal is to see what the network operators experience." The company will supply all the equipment needed, gratis, to get this off the ground.
Meraki makes very inexpensive equipment -- $50 for an indoor unit (Meraki Mini) and $100 for the outdoor version. You hook a few of the nodes directly to a broadband source like a cable modem, and the rest of the nodes form a mesh to extend the signal. They start inside rather than outside, unlike most mesh networks.
A deployment of Meraki nodes is controlled remotely using Web-based software called Dashboard. It's hosted on Meraki's servers, so customers don't have to install anything. "That's the first thing people ask: 'Make it so we don't have to install Linux,'" says Biswas.
Dashboard use is free -- customers only pay for the hardware. But Dashboard is required to run the hardware over the Internet; Meraki also pushes out automatic firmware updates to the hardware on a regular basis. Dashboard can be used to monitor a network and limit bandwidth usage -- and to monetize the network, letting the network operator decide how much, if anything, to charge a user for access. The money collection is handled by Meraki, which takes a cut before they send the operator a check.
Meraki didn't pick the San Francisco neighborhood for this "First Mile in Unwiring the World" (as they call it) out of a hat. Many of the 15 staffers at Meraki live in that area of San Francisco. "That's kind of 'our community,'" says Biswas. Meraki headquarters is in Mountain View, California, also home to their most famous investor, Google, which already installed a citywide, free Wi-Fi network there.
Still, the network isn't up and running at capacity yet, not even close. "This is something we'll kick off soon," says Biswas. " We'll hand out products to anyone in that area -- families, businesses, community groups, anyone -- to extend the range with repeaters." Interested parties can sign up at sf.meraki.net. The goal is to hand out about 1,000 repeaters.
How does a company like Meraki get the word out? It doesnt exactly have the PR power that EarthLink will use when and if it gets to deploy its citywide services. "The biggest issue in San Francisco is education and outreach," says Biswas. "We think it's about getting involved in the community. As it is deemed useful, people will talk about it." He says one of Meraki's customers in San Diego manages to get between 200 and 500 users per week on his network spanning five to ten city blocks. "We'd like to get to that point as well," Biswas says. "He's in an area one fifth of the size we plan to cover."
Meraki received $5 million in funding from Sequoia Capital just last month in its first round. This followed smaller investments last year from Google. To date, Meraki claims that its equipment is used by 15,000 users in 25 countries.