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What could be more greentech: broadband without wires, powered by the sun. Wi-Fi network startup Meraki said today it’s started selling its solar-powered Wi-Fi gear. Interested parties can throw down either $1,300 or $1,500 for a kit that contains a 20- or 40-watt solar panel, the pole mount, the Wi-Fi solar radio and the connector; for locations that need more solar power than that, $850 buys a package of just the radio and connector without the panels. For now, the company is just selling its devices online through its web site and resellers, but not at retail outlets.
At the GigaOM Network, we’ve been following Meraki for quite a long time. More than two years ago, I interviewed Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas about how he was going to turn his MIT Roofnet project into a sustainable business selling Wi-Fi mesh network hardware, software and services to deliver a grassroots movement of small wireless Internet Service Providers that could offer free and low-cost Wi-Fi. The company ended up raising money from Google, Sequoia Capital, DAG Ventures and Northgate Capital, and it built a free Wi-Fi network throughout areas of San Francisco that put the city’s own (now defunct) free Wi-Fi plans to shame. It’s been busy.
Now, with its solar gear, it’s helping solve more broadband access problem. Many of the company’s target customers are in developing countries where communities, organizations and local ISPs are looking to offer broadband access for a low cost. These are the same places where the power grid could be spotty — so solar could be an important option for just keeping the network up and running. Meraki also says the solar kit can bring down the cost and time of setting up the system, because there are no electrical network connections, and there’s no need for electricians to be involved in the set up.
The solar package which includes a Wi-Fi repeater, is really for someone who is building their own network — a neighborhood, an apartment complex, a community group. If you want to buy their products to join a network that someone has already set up, you can buy their indoor and outdoor gear for less than $200. The solar radio itself uses a lithium iron phosphate battery — the company says its the same one used for the One Laptop Per Child project — and interestingly the battery charging is managed using Meraki’s web dashboard. (Could they partner with utilities somewhere in there?)
Meraki says solar customers already include the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA), which added solar devices to its network in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. The vendor that set up the Harvard Square network said it added the solar units as a way to expand the network in a short period of time.