Meraki products aim to ease Wi-Fi deployment

Meraki Wi-Fi products promise to make wireless networking easier
  • John Cox (Network World)
  • 21 November, 2008 07:02

Meraki has unveiled two products -- one that fits into a electrical wall outlet, the other that runs without relying on an electrical grid at all -- that make it even simpler to deploy its Wi-Fi mesh network. It also unveiled a promotional package to encourage fast, low-cost deployment of Meraki wireless networks in apartment complexes, hotels and similar multitenant sites.

The San Francisco-based vendor is using radio technology developed by its co-founders in a MIT wireless research project called Roofnet], the goal of which is to create a highly reliable Wi-Fi network with optimal throughput.

One Meraki node connects to a DSL connection, creating a gateway. Other devices then interconnect automatically, creating a reliable mesh and letting a wireless clients share one Internet connection. Users providing a gateway can administer the network via a Web-based dashboard, which draws on real-time data from Meraki's back-end data centers; those handle QoS, control and security services, premium service levels, and billing and customer service.

The Meraki Wall Plug is an access point that looks like a stubby box, 4 inches by 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches, and weighs a half-pound. It plugs into a wall outlet without any equipment, including antennas, having to be mounted or positioned. It comes with a mounting bracket so it can be screwed into the outlet housing, to deter theft and prevent it being accidentally disconnected.

The Wall Plug's 2.4GHz 802.11b/g radio sets itself up as an Internet gateway if the upstream Ethernet port detects an Internet connection, or a repeater if it detects other Meraki radios in the area. It also sets itself up as a standard 11b/g access point for wireless client devices. There is no separate controller. In effect, Meraki moves the wireless LAN controller functions into its own data centers.

The existing Meraki Indoor product is a small box that connects via power cord to an outlet, and supports the Meraki wireless mesh protocol. The new Wall Plug, available now, is priced at US$179 compared with $149 for Meraki Indoor.

Wall Plug is designed for fast deployments. Several beta sites created their Meraki WLANs -- covering an apartment complex, for example -- in less than an hour, according to Sanjit Biswas, Meraki CEO and co-founder.

The second new product is Meraki Solar, expected to be released in December. Development took about a year. The goal was to create a solar-powered, outdoor Meraki node, coupled with a lithium iron phosphate battery to store power. (The same kind of battery is one of the power options in the One Laptop Per Child project.) Its virtues include fast recharging, high power density (so it can be run longer with no trickle charge from the solar panels) and greater safety.

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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.