Meraki’s Pipedreams on Wireless Internet Access

Meraki, a Silicon Valley wireless Internet startup co-founded by a desi entrepreneur Sanjit Biswas, seems to be on a tear these days but we are skeptical that this Formula car will ever reach its destination.

The two-year-old Mountain View, California start-up offers networking widgetry that promises to make setting up wireless Internet access a snap.

Meraki’s Mini routers and an online dashboard tool to monitor and manage networks are supposed to let even non-technical folks set up a wireless network.

In a company backgrounder, the Meraki folks write:

Plugging a Meraki Mini router into a DSL line instantly creates a gateway. As more Minis are added nearby, the signals stream back and forth to build a web of wireless connections. Known as a mesh, this fabric of signals makes it possible to use just one DSL line to create a cooperative wireless Internet network, bringing access to more people than ever before. 

The fledgling claims it’s taking a bottoms-up approach that lets people affordably and cooperatively build a wireless network in contrast to the top-down approach that has mostly failed so far in the U.S. at least.

It’s true that municipal WiFi experiments – free or otherwise – in the U.S. have mostly turned out to be still-born. Come on, no one with sense would have picked Philadelphia, the headquarter of Comcast, the largest U.S. broadband Internet access provider, for a municipal WiFi project. It’s like trying to peddle oil-alternatives in Saudi Arabia.

In any case, we remain skeptical about Meraki’s prospects for multiple reasons.

The company may have tasted some success with its wireless Internet access experiment in San Francisco. But San Francisco has a unique social and liberal culture that makes it a hospitable terrain for such cooperative bottomsup experiments. We doubt the concept will resonate equally well in other U.S. cities.

Broadband is the way to go in an age when content-rich web sites like YouTube rule. Meraki’s methodology in some contexts suggest slower Internet speeds. This may work fine in parts of Africa and Asia, where basic Internet access is itself still a serious issue. But it is not viable or acceptable in developed countries like the U.S, Western Europe, South Korea, Singapore or Japan.

In the U.S, broadband Internet access is available at varying speeds and different costs. For instance, Verizon and AT&T offer 768kbps ‘broadband’ Internet access to their landline customers for $14.95 per month with a free modem. That’s not a bad deal and can hardly be labelled expensive. Plus, keep in mind that dial-up access is a piffling $10 per month.

So, why would communities (if they even exist these days), non-profit groups or others really bother with all this wireless Internet access headaches?

After long years of living in the U.S., we conclude that this highly individualistic culture does not easily lend itself to cooperative and community participation activities except in isolated instances. Has anyone read the book Bowling Alone?

Of course, Meraki is not a charity. Its San Francisco experiment aside, the company’s business model for wireless Internet access targets non-profit groups, corporations, small businesses and carriers as potential customers offering them additional services such as billing, multiple bandwidth tiers and higher levels of support.

Since we remain uneasy with the basic slow speed inherent in a lot of the public and private wireless Internet schemes, Meraki’s grand plans don’t cut much ice with us.

For instance, frustration with slow wireless Internet speeds in hotels (a potential Meraki customer) led us to subscribe to a Sprint high-speed wireless Internet access service at $59.95 a month. Sure, that’s currently expensive. But we suspect more people will do the same in future in the U.S. and that prices for these services will fall as more customers come on board.

Meraki’s wireless communities are said to include villages in India, low-income apartments in Portland (Oregon), coffee shops in New York, businesses in London and parts of San Francisco, where the company’s Free the Net initiative has supposedly brought free wireless Internet access to thousands of residents and business owners.

Meraki plans to extend the San Francisco experiment to the entire city in 2008, according to a story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that also highlights new funding for the company. We think extending the free wireless Internet access initiative throughout San Francisco to be just a fantasy, something of a pipedream, you know.

Over the last 12 years, we’ve seen many Internet startups in the U.S. kick the bucket. As things stand today, we won’t be surprised if Meraki joins that list sometime in the future or ends up as Cisco’s meal one of these days.

Meraki’s technology has its roots in an MIT engineering research project called Roofnet that provided wireless Internet access to students, faculty and residents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The founders of Meraki are Ph.D students from MIT.

As proof of investor confidence in this fledgling, Meraki, which had previously received $5 million in Series A and angel funding from Sequoia and Google, has received an additional $20 million from Sequoia, DAG Ventures, Northgate Capital and prior round investors.

MIT Professor and IIT Madras alumni Hari Balakrishnan is a technical advisor to Meraki.

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