Wi-Fi on a Shoestring Wi-Fi on a Shoestring_THUMBNAIL

Prestonsburg, Ky., was hardly the first city to turn to municipal Wi-Fi in hope of spurring economic growth. Like counterparts throughout the country, local leaders figured that free wireless Internet access could help them attract new businesses. They also thought it might draw tourists, offer opportunities for telemedicine and distance learning, and keep young people from leaving Prestonsburg, a city of less than 4,000 residents at the rural, eastern edge of the state.

What leaders didn't figure on was the sticker shock after they gathered bids for constructing the network. One quote came in at $248,000 and another was $192,000. "We even got a low bid of $48,000, but that's still outside the realm of our small-city budget," said Brent Graden, Prestonsburg's economic director.

That's an understatement: Graden's budget for the project was just $8,500.

Nevertheless, in early 2008, Prestonsburg lit up with free Wi-Fi a 2-mile corridor running through its downtown core. As of late March, 2,500 unique users had accessed the service.

Prestonsburg developed its system using equipment from Meraki, a Mountain View, Calif., startup that offers a do-it-yourself approach to building Wi-Fi networks.

Founded in 2006, Meraki started as a doctorate-research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fueled by funding from Google and Sequoia Capital, the company's mission is to bring the Internet to the masses with wireless routers, which are cheap to buy and easy to install and operate.

Meraki takes a mesh-networking approach, which means each access point not only communicates with nearby wireless computing devices, but also serves as a router, passing the radio signal to other nodes. A Meraki Pro router for outdoor use costs $150 to $200. Other vendors were quoting $10,000 for an outdoor access point, Graden said.

"Obviously those give you great coverage," acknowledged Graden, but with the price for a competitor's device higher than the city's entire Wi-Fi budget, that equipment clearly wasn't an option.

A Meraki router covers a radius of about 500 feet, Graden said. That's been enough range to provide a signal along the 2-mile corridor, plus a few outlying locations, such as a local park and an arts center. Prestonsburg installed 48 outdoor units and 12 indoor units, he said.

Meraki keeps its prices low, in part by relying on economies of scale, said Sanjit Biswas, the company's CEO and co-founder. "We have thousands of networks around the world now," he said. "We're in 110 or 120 countries. And we're seeing a lot of growth."

Back-End Intelligence

The technology is less expensive because a Meraki network isn't self-contained. Rather than situating the bulk of the network's intelligence in the local infrastructure, Meraki conducts much of its essential activity in its Mountain View data center.

That means the user doesn't have to install and manage the entire infrastructure that other Wi-Fi networks require, Biswas said. "That's everything from access point controllers to user-management devices. There's a lot of complexity there," he said.

To set up a network, a user simply installs the routers and then logs in to the Meraki dashboard on the Web site, www.meraki.com, to create an account. The administrator then uses Meraki's software, via the dashboard, to set policies and manage the network. "The software lets you do things like manage hundreds or thousands of users," Biswas said. If the operator wants to charge for the service, the software handles the billing.

The administrator, Biswas explained, may also use the dashboard to enter text messages, which appear in a bar at the top of the screen while a user is on the network. Some operators sell ads in that space to help support the service.

Besides handling administrative chores, such as billing, Meraki monitors customers' networks from its data center and makes modifications as needed, such as rerouting traffic. "If you were to

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer