Meraki Seeks Money Making Outlet for Free Wi-Fi

Meraki, the Google and Sequoia-backed startup that focuses on citywide Wi-Fi networks, hasn’t let the demise of municipal Wi-Fi halt its efforts to make money or make the wireless network technology available in more places. It has scaled back considerably on its visions of open source, low-cost Wi-Fi for municipalities, instead focusing on Wi-Fi for apartment buildings, city squares and environments where someone is willing to pay to provide the service. Instead of connecting the world, Meraki wants to connect with paying customers. And that’s a good thing.
Today the company announced a Wi-Fi access point that plugs into a wall, and on Dec. 4 will release a lighter solar-powered access point to go places where power doesn’t. In a briefing about the products, it’s clear that Meraki still holds onto its altruistic views, with CEO Sanjit Biswas trumpeting the growth of Wi-Fi networks in Africa and small Chilean fishing villages. However, he’s quick to point out that hotels and apartment buildings can use the new Meraki products to rapidly install Wi-Fi networks that will cover a complex all the way from the pool to inside bedrooms.
In the last year, the startup has changed its business model several times, from trumpeting cheap hardware and charging a fee to access a dashboard, to tripling the price of its hardware and pushing ads. Such shifting hasn’t sat well with some citywide Wi-Fi network proponents, but the bottom line for many cities and customers is that Meraki’s Wi-Fi networks are still cheaper than those from vendors such as Cisco (s csco) or Juniper (s jnpr). As Wi-Fi becomes more important, Meraki’s capitalizing on its cheaper gear with new packages that offer to unwire a city street for $10,000, or today’s launch of a residential package designed for apartments and hotels that costs less than $5,000.
Wi-Fi is of growing interest for both consumers and ISPs. Earlier this year, Quentanna, a Wi-Fi chipmaker hoping to build a plug-in home access point to boost wireless signals, launched with a few ISP customers on board. A few weeks ago AT&T (s t) purchased hot-spot provider, Wayport for $275 million. If Meraki can figure out a way to spread Wi-Fi and make money, it could be in a good position as ubiquitous access to the Internet becomes more important for gadget-toting consumers. Wi-Fi is one of the most common gateways to the web, and even in a down economy Meraki thinks it can make money on the tools to build those gateways rather than by managing them. Meraki has realized that instead of saving the world, it needed to save its business.