For as long as I’ve had my cafe I’ve offered free wireless access to anyone who comes in. The idea is simple, if you’re here you’re probably going to eat or drink something while using the wifi. If you aren’t, then at least you’re putting a body in my window for other people to see.
Until recently my router only went a few feet past my building. It doesn’t help that I’m in an old cinder block building and the router was at the back. When I was still working for Nexopia I had schemed with a few of the engineers there about bouncing free wifi down Whyte Avenue using different repeaters. We came up with some grand schemes but nothing materialized mostly due to the time and cost restraints we all had.
Traditional wifi networks require the customization of each router, known as a node or repeater. I bought a Linksys WRT54GS router with plans for re-flashing the device with my own firmware. However after a lot of research I realized I didn’t have the technical expertise to do that. I could teach myself but it would take me a long time to become familiar enough with Linux to properly implement the router.
A while went by and I just kept offering free wifi to my customers in the cafe. Then along came Edmonton’s NextGen focus group on municipal wifi. Before I attended I once again opened up my research for free wireless networks and I stumbled across a company named Meraki and the idea of an open-mesh wifi network. I decided to order one of the Meraki Outdoor Pro repeaters.
I went to the municipal wifi focus group and we talked mostly about where to recommend the city implements free wifi. I was a bit turned off by the idea of leaving it up to the city’s IT department to make recommendations on how to implement this sort of system. If it’s anything like the U of A, it will be ancient, expensive, and unreasonably secure. I let everyone know I had already been considering this and I would be going ahead with my own experiment. This was met with a lot of encouragement because it’s exactly what the city needs to see in order to get something done. Perfect.
The idea behind a mesh network is that one plugs in a gateway node to a hard line to the internet. This node starts broadcasting a wifi signal. Any additional nodes that are given power within range pick up this signal and start repeating it. This is all automatic without any setup. You can only repeat a signal so far before the quality degrades, so every once in a while you’ll need to add another hard line. With enough nodes you can blanket whatever size area you want.
Meraki is a great concept… but with faults. They create neat looking wireless repeaters that have all the firmware pre-installed out of the box. Unpacking and plugging in my router was as simple as that, unpacking it and plugging it in. Then I logged on to their management page and put in my order number and it automatically connected to my device.
Meraki has one of the slickest dashboards I’ve seen for anything hardware related. It lets you map where your nodes and are track who is using it. As well you can introduce payment structures for people accessing your wifi if you’re greedy enough to do it.
Where Meraki fails is in letting their customers customize the product. Initially you were able to hack the devices however you want until Meraki decided to remotely update each device’s firmware and change their EULA. Read more here: http://www.virishi.net/from-happy-hacking-screw-you-story-meraki
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of creative control with the splash page for my router. The splash page is going to be how I justify deploying these nodes. If a few ads on a welcome screen can cover the cost of the hardware I’ll keep adding them. So far I’m going to sit on this one for a month and see what the usage is like.
- Simple to use
- Great tracking and management software
- Payment options
- Super easy to expand
- Very little plash page customization
- Extremely vague on payment terms and what sort of cut they get
- Evil ad bar for regular versions
- Evil EULA that doesn’t let you modify their hardware
Since Tuesday afternoon there have been 42 unique users of the network, and only about 5 have been inside my cafe. The Meraki repeater is supposedly good for around 700ft., and I can get a connection well down the street in several coffee shops. Right now it’s suction cupped to one of my windows.
In the future I’ll be looking more into Open-Mesh.com, the open source wifi mesh project that is much cheaper and fully customizable.