Micro-Mesh May Open Up New Markets

The New York Times today posted an article on Meraki Networks, a Silicon Valley startup whose products may open up a range of new markets for mesh WiFi. Meraki manufactures an extremely small, extremely low cost access point. Using MIT’s open sourceThe New York Times today posted an article on Meraki Networks, a Silicon Valley startup whose products may open up a range of new markets for mesh WiFi.

Meraki manufactures an extremely small, extremely low cost access point. Using MIT’s open source Roofnet access point design as a starting point, Meraki’s devices – the indoor version is about the size of four packs of cards stacked two by two – offer tremendous simplicity at low cost.

Google chose Meraki’s access points as the in-building solution for home users of its Mountain View, Calif. WiFi network. But the startup’s main initial focus is on housing developments, apartment buildings and other small-campus locations, where WiFi is considered a plus, but little IT staff is around to manage it.

The article, “Wireless Internet for All, Without the Towers,” takes a roundabout road to discussing Meraki’s offerings, talking first about the challenges of hanging mesh access points off lamp posts – relatively expensive, easily blocked by trees and buildings, etc. But Meraki’s products today don’t really fix those problems; you’ll still need a street-based mesh, or some in-building Internet connection, to reach the wider Net. However, if you want to cheaply distribute a WiFi signal inside a building, this is a great solution that echoes the old “pico-cellular” approach of Metricom, an early pioneer in wireless data networks.

I met two of Meraki’s co-founders, former MIT engineers Sanjit Biswas and Hans Roberson, a few months back. Their location is from startup central casting: A micro-mall office strewn with boxes and equipment. We talked in their small conference room, as the two walked me through their business model and showed me their centralized management application.

Once you become accustomed to the idea of an ultra-commoditized access point (“under $100,” said Sanjit, though the Times quotes a $49 price), Meraki’s secret sauce is really in its management application, which allows the company to see and manage every one of its devices remotely, even to the point of tunneling through nagging firewalls that might get in the way. They can also send software updates to their entire network automatically. This kind of centralized coordination gives them a tremendously scalable support platform, allowing them to keep services costs down as their installed base grows.

Where the Times article is spot on is in speculating about the value of Meraki’s approach for digital inclusion initiatives. By seeding inexpensive access points around a low-income area, allowing many homes to share a few DSL or cable modem lines, you could create an access cloud at extremely low cost. Add in a pool of low-cost PCs, and you could rapidly digitally-enable a school or neighborhood.

gB