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.
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.)
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:
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.)