A common question Commotion technologists hear is “How much does it cost to set up a mesh network?” Like any other infrastructure, the cost of organizing a mesh network varies depending on the desired coverage area and what services the network will host. But, there are some basic figures to keep in mind while you plan a mesh network. The following five points outline the costs of a “last-mile” network designed to spread internet connectivity throughout a mesh network.
A mesh network requires routers. Current Commotion test deployments use Ubiquiti Picostations and Nanostations. These run between $75-$85 each. We use these routers because they are low cost, but high quality, outdoor routers. If the network is open to all who walk by, and you have a high rooftop that acts as an infrastructure “mesh node” —used primarily to establish a network “backbone” as opposed to providing client access— you will also want a router between that rooftop and the ground so that people can access the network when walking by on the ground level. They may see the “mesh node”, but their phone or device may not be powerful enough to send data to it. This ground level access point router can be less powerful than the Pico/Nanostations up on the rooftops.
To get power and internet connectivity to your rooftop “mesh nodes” you need Ethernet cable. If you plan to mesh a few rooftop nodes together consider purchasing a spool of outdoor-rated cat5 or cat6 cable and an Ethernet crimper to attach the connectors. This will save you money in the long run. Individual fixed-length cables are far more expensive by the foot. Also, you won’t find yourself running out of cable a foot away from the router mast you just screwed into a roof if you cut your cable to length.
Outdoor installation means you will attach the routers to rooftops, existing poles or towers, or high walls. This requires mounting equipment. Depending on your needs, and how strong the weather is in your area, the price for the necessary mounting equipment will change. If a adequate structure to mount a node does not exist you will have to build a mast for the router. A well constructed mast can sometimes cost more than the router itself. Here is a small guide we put together about the various options.
If you plan to provide internet gateways for free internet access, consider that the more people using the mesh network, the more gateways you will need to maintain decent speeds for users. You and those who share the network may consider pooling together to purchase bandwidth for some of the buildings that host routers.
Maintenance and Upgrades
An external router has about a five year lifetime. You will also want to replace the Ethernet cable and check the rooftop mountings when you replace the router to make sure that everything can last until the next full hardware upgrade.
Beyond these basic costs, there are considerable time and community costs (fliering, meeting, planning, sharing technology and organizing skills, building relationships with neighbors, landlords, property managers and community leaders, etc). If you count time as money you should know that this is where a lions share of your time and effort will be spent. Good luck with your last-mile mesh! Let us know in the comments if you find a cost we missed, or if you have mesh cost-saving tips.