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I've spent much of today shaking my head at the sheer genius, scope, and out-and-out practicality of what Meraki Networks, Inc. has done.
I wish that developments like this could make a dent in the Freedom To Connect crowd that's meeting this week in Silver Spring, MD. They're meeting to endlessly hash over telecom policy and its implications, when the products that Meraki is selling is making all of that discussion practically moot. What Meraki is doing is creating a real Freedom To Connect - connect to what you want and do what you want - you (helped) build a network!
Of course, I don't see much evidence that the wireless industry, even the "radical fringe" of the wireless industry represented by the MuniWireless conference also meeting this week, gets this trend either.
We've seen a lot of tries at this commercially, including a very credible, but ultimately doomed effort by a company called Rooftop Communications that was acquired by Nokia, and now the plethora of "streetlight" Metropolitan Wi-Fi networks. Non-commercially, we've been hearing about this sort of promise from various community wireless groups for years now, but such efforts inevitably bog down when it comes to actually deploying network devices to form a network that's truly usable.
Meraki has overcome that hurdle by creating commercialized, cheap, easy-to-use-and-deploy Wireless Mesh nodes. Meraki's indoor unit (upper) is $49, and the outdoor unit (lower) is $99. The outdoor unit uses Power Over Ethernet, so you can put it up high and in the clear and keep the power brick and the Ethernet adapter inside. The outdoor unit also has an external antenna port... Wow!
You... as in you and your neighbors... civilians, ordinary people... just start putting these things up and boom - a network is born. Either use Ethernet to connect to them (each node has an Ethernet port) or connect via Wi-Fi, so practically anything Wi-Fi is going to work with them. What would be very cool, but the literature doesn't suggest this (I've sent an email query to Meraki), would be to be able to put up multiple outdoor nodes with directional antennas, and link them on a rooftop via Ethernet. The trick is to have the "meshing" function work over the Ethernet ports as well as it does over the radio ports.
Focusing on the limitations of this particular hardware implementation would be a huge mistake, because there's absolutely nothing inherent in what Meraki has done to constrain their systems to work only at modest ranges. What they've done to date is to optimize for price, compromising range somewhat in these particular units. Much higher power is possible, as well as using other frequency bands such as 5 GHz that would make the meshing function even more impressive. I have no idea what chipset Meraki is using at present, but in their next versions they'll be hard pressed not to implement dual band capability.
Meraki doesn't just focus on the hardware, sexy as that is. Meraki is also actively involved in deployment scenarios. They're working on a formal deployment in San Francisco whose goals are impressive, as well as enabling entrepreneurs to deploy Meraki systems on a for-pay basis.
One Laptop Per Child that is Wi-FI mesh-enabled. Nokia N800 that is finally a real Wi-Fi-enabled web tablet (gorgeous - I got to play with one a bit last week and I want one!) VOIP over Wi-FI phones that also include Skype In/Out for PSTN compatibility at modest prices. The mind reels.
Robert Berger was prescient... Wi-FI will win in the end... is winning now.
Sam Churchill of DailyWireless.org is absolutely right (thanks for the pointer to Meraki, Sam) - Maraki Rocks!
I'll be ordering my Meraki nodes sometime this month.
By Steve Stroh
This article is Copyright © 2007 by Steve Stroh