The reasons to love public Wi-Fi are many: downloads go faster than on cellular networks, it’s cheap to set up, and it’s free to use. Too often, however, it’s also spotty: strong in one place, weak in another. Mobile Internet users frequently wind up hopping from hot spot to hot spot, having to log in to a different network each time they move from the coffee shop to the subway to the office, and so on. Mountain View, California–based startup Veniam thinks it has a solution to that problem. Its system can blanket an entire city in seamless Wi-Fi coverage. Already, a pilot program in Porto, Portugal, is serving 110,000 people a month. In December, the company (whose management includes Zipcar founder Robin Chase) raised $4.9 million to bring the system to the U.S. Here’s how it works.
The backbone of the Veniam network is a city’s existing Internet infrastructure. Engineers tap into that infrastructure at points throughout the city, plugging what are essentially supercharged wireless routers into fiber-optic jacks. Because the routers broadcast on a frequency reserved for transportation systems, they have an extra-large range: up to 1,600 feet.
Fleets of public vehicles fill in the gaps between stationary routers. Buses, cabs, garbage trucks, and police cars are outfitted with Veniam’s special NetRider routers, which receive wireless signal from the access points, creating hot spots on the go.
If a vehicle can’t secure a signal from a stationary router, it can piggyback on the connection of another vehicle that’s still within range, creating a mesh network that covers the whole city. Since they’re all on the same network, that means one login, and no hot-spot hopping.
NetRider boxes also gather data that a city can use to refine its infrastructure. For example, it might log the locations of potholes or common traffic-congestion points, saving them to Veniam’s cloud service for later analysis.