[FoRK] Not going gently into post beta blues

Tom Higgins <tomhiggins at gmail.com> on Sun Oct 7 14:48:48 PDT 2007

I had some hope for this project. I had seen the devices early on and
got to hear some folks talk about a largish install of them in some
low income housing in the Portland area. This news though, well it
sort of changes things for an underfunded non profits (the ptp to
spell it out) desires.(sidebar  Some of us have been mucking around
with olsrd and crude tunnels to get some sense of a network  going,
more on that if there is interest. )


Mutiny on the Meraki: Google-backed Firm Ups Prices, Changes Features,
Requires Ads

By Glenn Fleishman

Meraki has changed its pricing and feature model for its mesh
networking system, angering early users: Exiting its beta, Meraki has
changed its pricing and service model, while requiring the display of
advertising and a piece of the action for handling billing. This
abrupt change, announced quietly last week, has resulted in a nascent
networker revolt. It may be that early infrastructure builders abandon
Meraki because to continue expanding networks, their cost structure
has gone way up while control has gone way down.

The two basic nodes that Meraki sells, Indoor and Outdoor, were priced
at $50 and $100 during the beta. The beta flag is gone from their
site, and while you can still buy the nodes at that price, many
features formerly included raise the price to $150 for Indoor and $200
for Outdoor. These prices move them into the range of what used to be
much higher-priced metro-scale hardware.

Meraki's system works by having little intelligence built into nodes
instead relying on an Internet-hosted administrative system to handle
the heavy lifting. Adding nodes requires just some configuration via a
Web site. Each node auto-discovers existing networks allowing their
addition. Each gateway to the Internet added to a Meraki network
increases the bandwidth pool.

The change puts tiers into effect. The Standard edition with the
cheaper pricing doesn't allow billing nor user authentication, nor
does it offer a custom splash page (a logo is all). Even the network
name gets Meraki branding on it ("Free the Net" precedes a local
name). Standard does offer a private WPA-protected network for the
owners, but without any granular access control. This means that a
group that wants to change small amounts for access or control access
by user cannot use the entry-level version. According to the forums,
this includes a lot of early networks. Standard networks also can't
"whitelist" more than a handful of devices, which means that devices
that lack the ability to display a Web page for authentication
purposes can't even access the network. So no Xboxes, VoIP phones, and
so on.

The Pro edition bypasses these limitations, essentially adding a $100
per node license for advanced control and the ability to bill.
However, because several of the Pro features were previously in the
only version Meraki sold during its beta, many networks had build
their business model, their pitch to cities and communities and
businesses, and their financing on $50 and $100 nodes. The Pro version
ups the ante while taking away some of what these network builders
need, according to the forums. (A Carrier class version, with no
pricing disclosed, allows a tie-in with existing user authentication
system, and allows more of a private-label version.)

So-called Legacy networks, ones that were built before this last week,
can continue to run as they do or be upgraded to Pro status at no
extra cost. But once upgraded, all the Pro limitations are in effect.
Any new nodes added to a Legacy network must be Pro nodes, too;
there's no option to add Standard nodes. This is part of what's
causing ire on the Meraki forums. (One of these networks, Kokua
Wireless, was praised in an editorial in today's Honolulu Star
Tribune; someone from the network noted on Meraki's forums, "It'll be
hard to build a business even @ the Pro level knowing Meraki can make
such drastic changes." One network operator has already flashed his
Merakis with alternate firmware.)

In this formal release, Meraki now displays advertising on every page
using what they variously call Community Messaging, Community
Messaging & Advertising Platform, and Messaging Platform. It's often
euphemistic. In effect, Google ads—Google is a Meraki investor—will
appear on every page in a special toolbar that requires no
installation. Which means that it's inserted using some
technique—probably frames—that might cause other problems, too.
Network operators can insert localized messages, but to a limited
extent. There's no option for Standard and Pro users to disable
advertising or the messaging bar. There's no disclosure on what
revenue, if any, Meraki splits with the network operator. If Meraki
handles billing for Pro users, they keep 20 percent of gross revenue.

I had to check the Web site after being alerted to this change,
assuming that senior management—largely a bunch of MIT grad students
who turned RoofNet into this clever commercial offering—had been fired
or shuffled, and a new carrier-oriented CEO was hired. As far as they
site shows, it's the same gang. Which surprises me, given how open the
group was about communicating, and how interested in community
building. This is a huge stumble, when the community tells me that
they were unaware of the changes to come until the Web site started to
have new information on it.

At $150 and $200 for managed nodes, Meraki has now lost some of its
edge against companies like Tropos Networks, the most likely
comparison. While Tropos, Cisco, BelAir, Motorola, Strix, and SkyPilot
typically charge $2,000 to $5,000 for their nodes, with the more
expensive ones including 5 GHz backhaul radios, those prices are
heavily discounted, several sources have told me recently. Tropos
nodes can cost EarthLink, its biggest customer, under $1,000, I have
it from multiple parties outside the service provider.

While $1,000 is clearly five times $200 for a similar outdoor piece of
gear, that belies several factors. Tropos is using enormously
high-powered radios, capable of producing up the maximum legal signal
strength in 2.4 GHz. Tropos has a sophisticated back-end that allows
integration with many popular management and authentication systems.
Using Tropos or other vendors' network gear is substantially less
trivial than building one from Meraki pieces, but with enormously
larger coverage areas relative to cost now, Meraki has moved itself
towards that equipment range without bringing the robustness needed.

The system and hardware has gotten rave reviews for the simplicity in
building a network in bits and pieces. But the good will may have just
flown out the window. I have just sent a query off to Meraki's PR
firm, but it being Sunday morning, I don't expect to update this post
until Monday.


-tom(flash em up)higgins

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