WiFi mesh networks are now going solar. Meraki Networks, a startup funded by Google and Sequoia Capital, today announced a $99 solar-powered wireless router/repeater that can create a mesh network with other similar routers. (The $99 is only for the weatherproof router. The solar panel has not yet been priced. Both should be available by August).
You can think of mesh networks as the next step after WiFi. Today, there are tens of thousands of WiFi hotspots around the world. But each one extends broadband Internet access no more than a few hundred feet. A mesh network ties these WiFi routers to each other to create a bigger network that can cover a neighborhood or even an entire city. I met up with CEO Sanjit Biswas when he was in New York a couple weeks ago. He told me:
Meraki is a service, like municipal WiFi. The economics of access changes when you create a big network.
One Meraki-powered mesh network in Slovakia, where DSl lines cost $100 a month, supports 350 people. Another in San Diego, the So Cal Free Net, is serves 600 low-income residents with only three business-class DSL lines. And Meraki itself is bringing a free WiFi mesh network to parts of San Francisco (this is separate from Google's project to cover the entire city with free WiFi hotspots).
Currently there are 1,000 Meraki mesh netwoks worldwide with about 40,000 users. Normally, each of these routers would have to be plugged into an electrcial outlet. But now they can be solar-powered, which should help Meraki with it's stated goal of trying to bring "Internet acces to the next billion people." Meraki's mesh technology is also being incorporated into each One Laptop Per Child computer (as students, Meraki's founders had previously created MIT Roofnet in Boston).
Once a wireless mesh network is set up, it can either be free to consumers and supported by ads—which might make sense in dense cities, although Biswas says there is too little local ad inventory to support that business model at this point—or whoever sets up the network can charge access fees ($10 a month is typical). Meraki's software takes care of managing the network traffic as well as billing, whether by credit card or prepaid card. Operators can choose to charge whatever they want or offer it for free and put up ads. Meraki takes a 20 percent cut. Says Biswas:
You probably have a better idea of what you should charge in Zimbabwe than I do.
Meraki's biggest weakness is that it fails to link, or at least give the option to link, the separate networks being built out on its technology. Contrast that approach to that of Fon or other WiFi communities where if you are a member you can log on anywhere in the world there happens to be a network. With Meraki's mesh networks, people are building 1,000 standalone islands.
What would really be disruptive would be to connect them all together.