How To Become Your Own Wireless Internet Service Provider

It’s rare for Google to invest in a company–usually they just buy them outright–but Meraki is a rather exceptional company.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with the CEO of Meraki a couple months back when he paid a visit to the New York offices of Scientific American, where I work. Prior to this particular press junket, Meraki hadn’t bothered to advertise–which, incredibly, hadn’t stopped their technology from metastasizing into 1,000 installs on every continent on Earth (yes, even Antarctica) solely by word of mouth.

What Sanjit Biswas, CEO of Meraki, described to me that afternoon is, I’ve come to believe, potentially revolutionary in its simplicity.

Put briefly, Meraki has created a cheap and reliable way for even completely nontechnical people to easily set up a wireless mesh network of virtually any scale, in which up to 50 users share a single connection to the internet while still being able to browse the web at comfortable speeds.

These networks have been used by non-profits to bring wireless connectivity to low-income communities and apartment complexes, but given their built-in ability to gate access and collect login fees, they could just as easily be used to turn anyone with a few hundred extra bucks into a wireless internet service provider.

Here’s how it works

Meraki’s primary product is the Mini, a rectangular box about the size of a bloated phone charger.

Meraki Mini

When plugged into an existing internet connection, it behaves like a wireless router. When in range of one of its mates (but not connected to the internet) it acts as a repeater, amplifying and re-transmitting the signal of neighboring repeater and/or router Minis. When plugged into the ethernet port on a computer, it can act as a wireless modem (in order to act in place of a wireless card, since many of the PCs in Meraki’s target market are in the developing world, and may not have wireless capability built-in).

The Mini is $50 US, and it’s commodity hardware–nothing special. What makes the Meraki Mini-powered mesh network special is the firmware burned into the flash memory of every Mini. This firmware is continually updated by Meraki, by remote, for free, for life. This software is the smarts that allows the mesh network to route packets efficiently–imagine a web of interconnected nodes plugged into DSL modems, cable internet connections, or simply wall outlets, spread across a neighborhood, housing complex, or town. (Here’s a map of one of the bigger installs, in San Francisco.)

Meraki network in San Francisco

Efficiently routing traffic through a mesh network with even a few dozen nodes is potentially a huge problem, mathematically, so the maintenance of the efficiency of these networks is maintained in part by Meraki’s remote servers–basically all the hard computational grinding has been offloaded to Meraki’s computing cloud.

My own experiences with Meraki

All that aside, my own personal experiences with the Meraki have been nothing short of remarkable in terms of how little maintenance my own small network has required.

I live in so-called brownstone Brooklyn, where four-story row houses stand cheek by jowl with one another. My landlord has a wireless connection which he lets me share, except that it’s transmitted by a wireless router three floors above me, so the signal strength where I am, on the first floor, is abysmal. So I got him to agree to let me replace his wireless router with a Meraki Mini, and I bought a second one to put in the one spot in my apartment where I can usually see the signal from upstairs. I plugged both in to the wall (and the router Mini into a DSL modem), logged into meraki.net to register the network, and voila — I instantly had a two-node mesh network with gated access manageable through a web-based dashboard–which also provides me with everyone’s usage patterns and other geektacular data.

I’ve been thinking of attaching another Mini to my back window (they come with suction cups) to retransmit the signal to my back yard, for those days I feel like working outside, and here’s where the bit about becoming your own Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) comes in:

solar powered meraki mini

If I wanted to, I could also stick a weatherproof, $99 US outdoor Mini on my back fence. One model is even solar powered, so I wouldn’t have to run an extension cord out to it.

Since it’s outdoors and there’s nothing but wooden fences and a few trees back there, this router would probably have an effective range of about 500 feet, or enough to encompass all the apartment buildings behind me and most of the houses on my small block. Getting permission from neighbors down the street to stick additional solar-powered Minis to their back fence would allow me to effectively cover dozens or even hundreds of residential units. (In New York, the population density is quite high.)

I could then modify the splash page that anyone attempting to log into my Meraki network sees — that’s easy, and can be done through the aforementioned web-based dashboard — to say that the network they’re attempting to access is the local indy wireless network, and if they’d care to fork over a certain number of dollars a month, they could use it to get access to the net. (Meraki handles all billing and access issues and takes a small cut.)

Granted, charging a bunch of my neighbors $10 a month (or whatever I think the market will bear) to use my DSL connection isn’t going to make me rich–but if enough of them sign up it could at least pay for my access and maybe leave me a little bit of passive income after that. And all I had to do was something I enjoy anyway… a little bit of tinkering with no technical knowledge required. Perfect for my geek-inclined but not terribly frustration-tolerant disposition.

I’m curious if anyone reading has had any experiences of their own with setting up Meraki mesh networks, or if they live in areas that might be suitable for these kinds of applications. (Also, feel free to ask any questions in the comments; there are quite a few details I left out of this post in the interest of brevity.)

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20 Responses to How To Become Your Own Wireless Internet Service Provider

  1. Everton July 30, 2007 at 5:44 am #

    Welcome to the team Chris and great first post!

  2. Avatar of Everton
    Everton July 30, 2007 at 6:44 am #

    Welcome to the team Chris and great first post!

  3. Andy July 31, 2007 at 2:26 am #

    This is revolutionary in its simplicity. I plan to buy a couple of minis and play with this technology.

  4. Andy July 31, 2007 at 3:26 am #

    This is revolutionary in its simplicity. I plan to buy a couple of minis and play with this technology.

  5. Christopher Mims July 31, 2007 at 12:00 pm #

    I’m in the Philippines with a DSL connection that’s pretty slow compared to the kind in America and the UK. I’m afraid that a mesh network, of any kind, would eat up what little bandwidth I get from the provider.

    That’s the great thing about Meraki – you can set bandwidth limits for everyone on the network (and none at all for yourself). This means you could only be selling folks your “spare” capacity. (I mean, are you downloading 24/7?)

    As Sanjit, CEO of Meraki pointed out to me, when most people are doing normal things on the web – e-mail, browsing the web, etc., they’re actually using up surprisingly little bandwidth. That’s why in the U.S. one single DSL connection spread through a meraki mesh network and offered up to up to 50 users is still a reasonable surfing speed for those users.

    If you had a lock on your nabe, that would be perfect. Your initial cost will be however many nodes you’ll need to cover the geographical area. Keep in mind that in some cases you’ll have to jump between buildings (could mean additional nodes on windows to transmit signal between buildings). Merakis can also be powered through an ethernet cable, so that’s one option for powering outdoor Merakis.

    Another issue is convincing your neighbors to be OK with having this weird little box plugged into their wall. Of course if, in the case of those particular neighbors, you let them know that this is how you’re going  to give them free internet, they might be more amenable…

    Two final pieces of the equation: make sure your ISP is either cool with sharing or doesn’t check, and for folks who don’t have wireless capability in their computers, you’ll have to find those commodity USB wireless modems that can be had for as little as $20 and sell them those as well.

  6. Avatar of Christopher Mims
    Christopher Mims July 31, 2007 at 1:00 pm #

    I’m in the Philippines with a DSL connection that’s pretty slow compared to the kind in America and the UK. I’m afraid that a mesh network, of any kind, would eat up what little bandwidth I get from the provider.

    That’s the great thing about Meraki – you can set bandwidth limits for everyone on the network (and none at all for yourself). This means you could only be selling folks your “spare” capacity. (I mean, are you downloading 24/7?)

    As Sanjit, CEO of Meraki pointed out to me, when most people are doing normal things on the web – e-mail, browsing the web, etc., they’re actually using up surprisingly little bandwidth. That’s why in the U.S. one single DSL connection spread through a meraki mesh network and offered up to up to 50 users is still a reasonable surfing speed for those users.

    If you had a lock on your nabe, that would be perfect. Your initial cost will be however many nodes you’ll need to cover the geographical area. Keep in mind that in some cases you’ll have to jump between buildings (could mean additional nodes on windows to transmit signal between buildings). Merakis can also be powered through an ethernet cable, so that’s one option for powering outdoor Merakis.

    Another issue is convincing your neighbors to be OK with having this weird little box plugged into their wall. Of course if, in the case of those particular neighbors, you let them know that this is how you’re going  to give them free internet, they might be more amenable…

    Two final pieces of the equation: make sure your ISP is either cool with sharing or doesn’t check, and for folks who don’t have wireless capability in their computers, you’ll have to find those commodity USB wireless modems that can be had for as little as $20 and sell them those as well.

  7. steve September 9, 2007 at 12:05 am #

    How much of a cut does Meraki take? I can’t find this anywhere on their website nor in searching through Google.

    FON on the other hand is up front with the fact that they take 50% of the profits. But you also get to roam for free on any FON wifi network

  8. steve September 9, 2007 at 1:05 am #

    How much of a cut does Meraki take? I can’t find this anywhere on their website nor in searching through Google.

    FON on the other hand is up front with the fact that they take 50% of the profits. But you also get to roam for free on any FON wifi network

  9. Christopher Mims September 9, 2007 at 9:12 pm #

    Meraki’s cut is small – don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s less than 20%, perhaps much less. Their billing option is still in beta, that’s probably why you haven’t seen anything on it.

    Another important difference between Meraki and Fon is that Meraki is a complete solution for creating a mesh network and spreading it over a large (or small) area. Fon is just a way to share your router and share others’ routers. In my mind they address very different needs.

  10. Avatar of Christopher Mims
    Christopher Mims September 9, 2007 at 10:12 pm #

    Meraki’s cut is small – don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s less than 20%, perhaps much less. Their billing option is still in beta, that’s probably why you haven’t seen anything on it.

    Another important difference between Meraki and Fon is that Meraki is a complete solution for creating a mesh network and spreading it over a large (or small) area. Fon is just a way to share your router and share others’ routers. In my mind they address very different needs.

  11. Emmanuel Narokobi October 5, 2007 at 3:24 pm #

    I think it’s official now. Meraki does charge 20%, see here:
    http://meraki.com/oursolution/editions/comparison/

    This is for the Meraki Pro division. You also pay more if you are going to make money from it. So a Mini in a standard edition cost you $49 but if you go Pro, then the same Mini costs you $149.

    But getting back to the 20% charge, what if people are paying you as a mini WISP and they do not have credit cards??

  12. Emmanuel Narokobi October 5, 2007 at 4:24 pm #

    I think it’s official now. Meraki does charge 20%, see here:
    http://meraki.com/oursolution/editions/comparison/

    This is for the Meraki Pro division. You also pay more if you are going to make money from it. So a Mini in a standard edition cost you $49 but if you go Pro, then the same Mini costs you $149.

    But getting back to the 20% charge, what if people are paying you as a mini WISP and they do not have credit cards??

  13. Phillip Moatswi February 19, 2008 at 7:00 pm #

    How canone get a hold of this interesting but questionalble offer?in terms of personal benefit with the same benefit of business growth?

  14. Phillip Moatswi February 19, 2008 at 7:00 pm #

    How canone get a hold of this interesting but questionalble offer?in terms of personal benefit with the same benefit of business growth?

  15. Victor Hugo July 30, 2008 at 1:24 am #

    were can I find expos on this product and thus like it.

  16. Victor Hugo July 30, 2008 at 2:24 am #

    were can I find expos on this product and thus like it.

  17. JLH February 22, 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    Anyone know if  Time Warner could legally disrupt my wireless network if  I set one up for my little community?  Are there laws that say I can’t provide wireless service if  Time Warner “owns” this territory?  I just want to make sure I don’t step on any toes or make someone too angry before I ever get this started.

  18. JLH February 22, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    Anyone know if  Time Warner could legally disrupt my wireless network if  I set one up for my little community?  Are there laws that say I can’t provide wireless service if  Time Warner “owns” this territory?  I just want to make sure I don’t step on any toes or make someone too angry before I ever get this started.

  19. doubledeuce September 17, 2009 at 4:37 pm #

    the explanation is simple,but what about if you have an internet cafe in your local area,and you want to supply your nieghbours with internet accessibility of this kind,will it be that i wil set a bandwith for each user and there wont be any problem among the users.Also how will i charge them.

  20. Easycareinc May 29, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Can cell phone users log onto the net using this system?