Meraki’s mesh network is uniquely suited to outfitting grassroots organizations with the means to build their own network. It’s not only cheap: it was designed to run without any central control. In addition to automatically routing traffic through the different units, it enables everyone who provides an Internet access point–say, through their own DSL connection–to access their own private “dashboard,” software running on Meraki’s website. That allows Internet-access-point providers to set security levels, control the number of users who get access, allocate a certain amount of bandwidth to each user, and even tap into a Meraki-run billing system if they want to charge people for Internet access.
Michael McCarthy, a technical consultant at the Booker T. Washington Community Services Center, took up Meraki’s offer in order to connect a housing development called Westside Courts in San Francisco’s Western Addition after he priced Cisco mesh-network routers at several thousand dollars apiece. Meraki and Google volunteers helped McCarthy decide where to install 22 routers in the center’s two buildings. Now about 60 residents are online, and on any given evening, some 40 of them (mostly teenagers) download up to five gigabytes of data. What’s more, anyone in the area with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop can tap into the network and get connected for free.
“I have some technical skills, but I could never understand the Cisco routers,” says McCarthy. “But I’m able to monitor and control the Meraki network. It really is plug-and-play.”
Still, Meraki’s mesh network may not be sufficient to wire the entire city by itself. Each router can transmit a signal only about 200 meters (although Biswas says that users could extend that up to 30 kilometers by buying third-party antennas). But Yankee Group’s Wiggins, Google’s Ingersoll, and Craig Settles, president of municipal Wi-Fi consulting firm Successful.com, all believe it could be a great complement to an outdoor system–assuming city supervisors ever approve one. The biggest drawback to outdoor municipal Wi-Fi systems is reaching inside buildings–a problem that Meraki’s routers could help solve by providing the indoor signal. In the meantime, says Settles, “there’s a bloc of underserved people in San Francisco. Meraki is providing a viable option for some kind of connectivity now.”