Meraki hopes it can succeed where larger players such as Earthlink and Google failed: Making a business out of providing the infrastructure for citywide Wi-Fi systems.
The company’s new Main Street WiFi Starter Pack delivers everything a city or town needs to deploy broadband wireless access (802.11b/g) across an area of one square mile at a cost of just $10,000—that’s a fraction of what more typical commercial WiFi systems cost. And it even comes with a 60-day money-back guarantee.
How is Meraki able to deliver a system at such a low cost? The secret is Meraki’s mesh-network technology that enables each device in their network to operate as an all-in-one gateway, repeater, and access point. Deploying a network is as simple as connecting each module to a power source; once plugged in, the devices immediately communicate with one another to form a network. Increasing the network’s reach is a simple as plugging additional modules.
At minimum, one module must be hardwired to a network with a live Internet connection, but all the others can act as wireless repeaters as long as each link in the chain can reach another access point. You might think of Meraki’s network as hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots that are all linked together to blanket a very wide area. What’s more, the mesh system allows cities to use multiple gateways from different service providers, eliminating the need for them to invest in a central network operations center.
Meraki’s data centers host all the required networking services, so that municipalities don’t need servers or IT departments to manage their networks. Meraki’s Pro Edition management software provides all the tools needed for monitoring, managing, and securing the network and includes an integrated billing system for cities that want to charge for access. The more advanced Carrier Edition software is available for an extra fee (Meraki doesn’t disclose pricing); it includes features such as prepaid card billing and “enhanced” branding.
Meraki built out a free wireless network in its home town of San Francisco that has grown to accommodate 165,000 users in the 18 months since its initial rollout. The City of Cambridge, Massachussetts deployed a Meraki system that covers 24 acres of public space at a cost of just $5,621. They needed only three of Meraki’s indoor units ($149 each) and 26 outdoor units ($199 each) to accomplish this.
The company started out as a Ph.D. research project at MIT focused on delivering inexpensive Internet access to the masses and already has customers in 125 countries. It is privately held and backed in part by Google and the venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital.