Meraki products aim to ease Wi-Fi deployment

Meraki Wi-Fi products promise to make wireless networking easier

The combination of solar and battery eliminates the need for an electrical infrastructure and reduces deployment costs because costly electrical conduits don't have to be run. The unit weighs two pounds, so one person can carry it up a ladder to install it. Its price will be US$799 to US$1,499, depending on the size of the solar panels, which vary depending on one's location.

The new Residential WiFi Pack is a limited-time, promotional offer combining Meraki hardware, Web interface, back-end services and a 60-day money-back guarantee. The company says that for less than $5,000, a customer can cover a typical 100-unit apartment complex and do so in a few days, if not hours. Alternatively, Meraki has a group of partners that can handle deploying and managing the networks for a customer.

Meraki launched a square-mile test bed, dubbed Free the Net, in San Francisco in 2007. That was expanded starting early in 2008. The company initially offered residents free Meraki repeaters and DSL connections in return for permission to mount backhaul antennas on building rooftops, corners and balconies. The network has grown as more users have signed up to share their broadband Internet connection with other users, reflecting a new emphasis nationwide on decentralized, community-driven, community-focused wireless networks.

Today, the Meraki network covers about six square miles of the city, with about 185,000 users (up from about 65,000 in March) who rely on it for such standard tasks as Web surfing and e-mail. An online map shows the Meraki radio locations and the number of users on each one. The free service typically is comparable to 1Mbps DSL, Biswas says. "If you want to stream IPTV or HD [high definition], it's not the ideal for you," he says.

One early Meraki user is Jeannene Hansen, a graphics and Web designer. She signed up host a Meraki router in her apartment, mounted with a suction cup to a street-facing window, with a line-of-sight view to a roof-mounted outdoor Meraki router and antenna. She shares her DSL connection with with as many as 18 users, some of them neighbors, some seated in nearby restaurants or other businesses. She can connect her Mac even from the back of her apartment, away from the street. She says the impact of other users is not noticeable on her DSL performance.

The San Francisco network has grown even as the city's original plans to contract with Earthlink for a municipal-wide free Wi-Fi service collapsed in acrimony, and an ambitious plan to cover the entire nearby Silicon Valley with Wi-Fi failed to win investor backing and was scaled back dramatically.

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