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

add more DSLs or T1s [for backhaul from the mesh network], we would automatically balance the load across those," said Biswas. "If interference suddenly shows up, we will route around that as well."

Because Meraki handles so many of the technical aspects, Graden was able to install Prestonsburg's entire network himself. "If I had a bucket truck with me and a driver, I could probably put it up in one day. It's that easy," he said. "If you can screw in a light bulb, you can do this."

A Small Pilot

Graden first learned about Meraki from a magazine advertisement. He investigated the technology with help from ConnectKentucky, a nonprofit, technology-based, economic-development organization. Then he decided to install a pilot system. "I just bought a couple of routers to try it out first. And it worked exactly like they said," said Graden. "So then we bought the full amount to go 2 miles."

The 48 outdoor and 12 indoor routers cost Prestonsburg about $5,300. About $2,700 paid for three DSL connections with two years of service. With the remaining money, Graden bought advertising to publicize the service.

For Prestonsburg and many other customers, Meraki includes three years of its data center services in the price of the hardware, Biswas said. Larger customers can opt for a plan that discounts the hardware, but adds a monthly fee for service, he said.

Graden logs in to the dashboard about three times a day to check on the network. If there's a problem, he usually can fix it himself, he said. But there haven't been many problems. "It's self-healing," Graden said. "It sends packets of information, called pings, to each node to double-check, to make sure the system is running smoothly. If not, it sends me an e-mail reminder."

Because the dashboard is accessible via the Internet, Graden said, he can manage the network from anywhere. "I could be on vacation in Paris, France, and get on my iPhone and control the whole system."

Currently Prestonsburg isn't selling ads in the messaging bar, and since it's not charging for the service, the network isn't producing revenue. The city might start selling advertisements in the future, though, as Graden develops an e-government Web site. When that's ready, the first stop for anyone connecting to the Wi-Fi network will be the city's home page. The city would sell display ads on that splash page, Graden said.

Meraki is exploring more sophisticated advertising options. The advertisement service is still in beta testing as Meraki works out details such as who - Meraki or the network operators - will do the selling. "We need about another year or so to get that put together," said Biswas.

In the meantime, the service brings in money indirectly by attracting new enterprises, Graden said. "The first thing I tell a business when I'm driving them around, showing them different properties for their business is: 'Did you know the whole town's wireless for free?'"


Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer