Wednesday, January 02, 2008

shared access to wireless networks

With the new year comes an end to the "best of 2007" and an influx of glimpse-of-the-future posts. One such prognostication in the Sydney Morning Herald highlights a favorite of mine: a program to release the stranglehold that the telcos have on wireless access in the US (and many other countries). The article is Ten things that will change your future. Here's the trend:
GUERILLA WI-FI Having a wireless internet system set up at home is becoming increasingly common. However, tapping into the internet while out and about is still very hit and miss - and where it is available is often nose-bleedingly expensive (Telstra "hot spots" cost $14 an hour while Optus slugs users about $12 an hour).

Meraki is an internet start-up that aims to change all that by providing cheap - or free - wireless networks. Meraki sells a remarkable device call the Meraki Mini for $US49. Plug it in to your internet connection and it will instantly provide shared access to other users up to 50 metres away.

Put several Merakis together in a neighbourhood (and perhaps include a few of the more powerful versions that cover up to 350 metres) and they will instantly form a "mesh" network, giving internet access to anyone in the area. These "guerilla" networks are beginning to spring up in cities around the world, driven by people for whom internet access is a social-equity issue. Do internet service providers like this Robin Hood-style behaviour? Not at all. Can they do much about it? Er, no.
Here's what Meraki says about itself:
A little about Meraki

Meraki’s mission is to bring affordable Internet access to the next billion people. Meraki’s new approach to wireless networking empowers individuals and groups to bring access to local communities, anywhere in the world.

Meraki has focused on changing the economics of access since its beginning as a MIT Ph.D. research project that provided wireless access to graduate students.

Using their research, Meraki got its start at a low-income housing community in the US. News about Meraki’s products spread by word of mouth into over 25 countries around the world. Every day, new Meraki networks bring access to locations ranging from urban apartment complexes in London to villages in India.

Meraki is based in Mountain View, California, and is backed in part by Google and Sequoia Capital.

The Name
Meraki (may-rah-kee) is a Greek word that means doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing.
A blog post on Meraki in SF gives a few details:
The Meraki Mini is a tiny 802.11 b/g wireless router that simply plugs into a wall outlet and an Internet connection, and can also work as a repeater for an existing Internet network. It was based on the MIT RoofNet project (but is not directly compatible with it). By placing Meraki’s $50 mini repeaters in their windows, the devices will automatically form a network to relay wireless Internet throughout the neighborhood.

Meraki’s Dashboard software can be used to monitor a network and limit bandwidth usage — and to monetize the network, letting the network operator decide how much, if anything, to charge a user for access. The money collection is handled by Meraki, which takes a cut before they send the operator a check.
The post also contains this photo of the 50-meter device (click to view full size):

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