Google Inc has invested a small amount of venture capital in a local mesh networking company, Meraki Networks Inc, which it also is working with to get better indoor WiFi coverage as part of its free city-wide WiFi projects.
The Mountain View, California-based companies recently deployed about 20 of Meraki’s customer premise equipment units, dubbed the Meraki Mini, which can also mesh, to boost Google’s free WiFi initiative in its home town, confirmed Meraki COO and co-founder Hans Robertson.
The Mini is an outdoor/indoor 802.11b/g access point that covers up to 200 feet inside and up to 500 feet outside.
Meraki began as a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about eight months ago. It’s kind of like a municipal style of network but on a smaller scale, Robertson said. The Meraki Mini, as well as our management services, essentially allow people to deploy wireless networks that cover large geographic areas without a lot of time or money.
Meraki released a beta version of the Mini in July to paying customers in more than 20 countries, including some in the Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, South East Asia and Africa, Robertson said. Currently, the device is being used in a couple of hundred networks, he said.
Google tested the Mini in the hallways of a housing complex in Mountain View, where it has teamed with other wireless gear makers to provide free city-wide WiFi. Google’s outdoor network there works successfully but locals have complained bitterly about coverage indoors.
So Google is creating these indoor subnetworks using Meraki, Robertson said.
Indoor WiFi mesh coverage has been an industry-wide problem, mostly because the technology wasn’t designed for it. To address this, companies simply install more indoor access points, particularly in coverage blind spots.
However, this can be expensive and complicated. Meraki hopes its Mini, which will cost less than $100, will be an easy to use and cheap alternative. Robertson said the unit likely will launch in early 2007.
Essentially, Meraki has simplified its access point so that it can be installed and maintained without expertise. But there are trade-offs, including no interoperability protocol necessary to meld a mesh network with a corporate network.
[Mini] is not the type of thing you’d want to take to your enterprise and say it fits seamlessly with its existing network, Robertson explained. Our focus has been the stand-alone network operator.
Potential customers would include small and mid-sized businesses, as well as building owners.
Robertson said Google invested less than $1m in Meraki, as part of a wider seed round that included several unnamed Silicon Valley angel investors.
Meraki, which currently employs about 10 workers, already has significant revenue, Robertson said, but he declined to give any financial details. He would not say whether the company was profitable yet.
While Robertson claimed Meraki has no direct competitors, he said it likely won’t be too long before that changes. Still, he expects the Mini’s ease of use and self-healing properties will be its competitive advantage.
Google also has won a bid with Earthlink to provide free WiFi in San Francisco, but that project is not yet complete. Google has told Computer Business Review it has no desire to become a WiFi operator, but rather has set up these free WiFi projects as test beds for future mobile search projects.