Mesh Network Creates Low-Cost Muni Wi-Fi for Kentucky Town

Project provides free wireless Internet in downtown Prestonsburg for just $8,500.

by / August 25, 2008

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

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