Wireless Ypsi started in Ypsilanti in January 2008 when Brian Robb and I bemoaned the fact that one of our favorite restaurants didn't have Internet service. I said that I had 10 Meraki radios that I never setup. Maybe he could get them to work. I had received the radios as an early Beta tester in March 2007 but never did anything with them.
I have done hundreds of wireless networks; I figured I wouldn't see Brian for weeks. Brian called the next day and said they work! Sure enough, he had a working mesh network.
Learning from Past Failures
Southeast Michigan had one of the first wireless high speed networks. Called Ricochet, it covered from Detroit to Royal Oak and all along I-94 from Detroit to Ypsilanti. Sorry Ann Arbor, Ricochet never worked there. It cost $90 a month and you got 128KB service. Sadly they folded in August 2001. Ricochet spent $500 million to cover 17 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
In Detroit, they had 384 customers. That is not a typo. At $90 a month it would take 89 years to payback the investment here in Michigan. The problem with Ricochet was that they were competing with ISDN, DSL and cable --all faster technologies at a much lower cost.
Ricochet could have been successful if they had deployed their networks in communities that had no other service but dial-up. But competing against wired services, they could never be cost competitive.
They should have focused on tourist destinations like Aspen, Lake Tahoe, Traverse City, or Mackinac Island. Business would gladly sign up for the service and tourists and vacation home owners would also gladly pay $75 to $90 a month.
Then in 2003, Washtenaw and Oakland Counties as well as many cities across the county announced grandiose plans for Community Wireless Internet. And with few exceptions, they all failed.
They failed because they tried to be all things to all people. It many ways it was like a Swiss Army knife. These communities threw in every possible wireless use hoping to get these diverse constituents to kick in funds.
Police and Fire want Wireless for Secure Mobile Access. Add to the RFQ. Water departments wanted wireless for meter reading. Add it to the RFQ. Building Departments wanted it for plan review. Housing Commissions wanted access for low income housing. Add it to the RFQ. City Hall wants Voice over IP to replace cell phones. Add it to the RFQ.
With so many requirements, the costs grew exponentially and so did the complexity. So when the first networks were deployed, they didn't work.
Wireless Ypsi had one goal. Provide reliable wireless Internet service. No meter reading, no private secured network. No sharing computers or printers. Most importantly it wasn't intended to be your primary Internet service. If it worked, great, if not, oh well. We constantly remind people, the network is free, and it is worth what you paid for it.
If you need high speed Internet service for your business or a full time connection for school, Wireless Ypsi is not for you. But if you want to check your email, chat with a friend, or search the Web, Wireless Ypsi is perfect.
At Wireless Ypsi, we under promised and over delivered.
New technology changes the game
The Meraki mesh radios work without a lot of hassles inherent in previous mesh technologies. It isn't plug and play, but it is very close. Any competent networking geek with decent problem solving skills can get a Meraki mesh network up and running in an hour.
The system is fully managed via web control panel and you can throttle the bandwidth delivered to each user. This keeps bandwidth hogs from abusing the system and then, if you still have a bandwidth hog, you can block them from accessing the network.
Meraki has a fundamentally changed the way mesh networks are designed and deployed. For one the nodes are cheap. The indoor radio is $150 and the outdoor is $200. By comparison, just one year ago we were purchasing outdoor radios using similar technology that cost $1,500 each.
Wireless Ypsi is possible because the cost of deployment has dramatically dropped and Meraki has developed a system that actually works.
In San Franciso, Meraki has deployed a free wireless service that today has over 150,000 users. Meraki uses the San Francisco network to demonstrate how a large scale community WiFi network works and as a laboratory to test new products and features.
Tomorrow, I will talk about the need to build a sense of community ownership and how to finance a wireless community network.
Feel free to email me directly with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org