Eero Aims to Bring Elegant Mesh Networks to Home Wi-Fi

Xconomy San Francisco — 

As a kid, Nick Weaver was obsessed with Wi-Fi. His home was one of the first on the block in his Chicago-area neighborhood to get a high-speed Internet connection, and the young Weaver was soon turning that speedy digital pipe into a wireless network that blanketed his home.

“I’ve been thinking about this problem for as long as I can remember,” he says.

So it’s probably no surprise to people back home that, as an adult, Weaver started a company that wants to make home wireless connections stronger, easier to use, and more stable.

Yes, good old Wi-Fi, a tool so pervasive that people have jokingly added it to the hierarchy of critical human needs. In just a few years, wireless internet—particularly in the home—has gone from a fun extra to a critical part of entertainment, work, and even security systems.

If you believe the trendspotters, it’s going to become even more important in the next few years as companies large and small build Internet-connected devices that control systems in your home.

With all of that innovation happening at the consumer end, it’s kind of odd that there aren’t more businesses trying to improve the devices one step up in the chain, where the Internet connection is splintered into Wi-Fi and thrown up into the air around your abode.

“The companies selling these products don’t really have software teams,” says Weaver, co-founder and CEO of Wi-Fi startup eero. “And they’re not really designing hardware, either.”

Eero is taking the opposite approach. The San Francisco-based company is building sleek-looking wireless routers that, Weaver promises, will pair with an equally elegant software system and mobile applications to make setting up and using home wireless networks much easier than is typically seen with commercial routers. They also include Bluetooth connectivity, which powers many of the newer-generation connected home devices, such as door-lock systems.

But the real strength comes in numbers. Specifically, eero is banking on getting consumers to shell out for a three-router system that will spread a more advanced mesh network across their home.

In a typical home Wi-Fi setup, users are left trying to get a router that’s powerful enough and positioned just right, allowing it to penetrate walls, floors, appliances, and other obstructions. If you get desperate enough on your quest to conquer dead zones, there are boosters and range-extenders to help stretch the signal out farther.

A mesh network, on the other hand, employs multiple routers that can communicate with each other. That allows the resulting network to be stronger and wider, but also more nimble and resilient, with routers compensating for other parts of the network that may be running poorly.

These kind of networks are readily available for commercial customers, but finding a consumer version is pretty tough.

“With really crappy firmware, it’s easy to run one device. But the moment it turns into this more distributed system, things get more complex very quickly. And the existing guys in the space are not really equipped to do it,” says Weaver.

Price might also be part of the reason that you haven’t seen a bigger market develop for advanced wifi products like this. A very good wireless router will still cost less than $200 in many cases, while buying the trio of eero routers recommended for a typical U.S. home will cost $300 for pre-order customers, and perhaps $500 when the products hit wider distribution.

Weaver thinks the time is right, however, for a serious Wi-Fi upgrade—and he’s betting that consumers will be willing to pay more for that improvement. Along with the promised onslaught of connected devices for the home is the more prosaic rise of video streaming services, with cable stalwarts like HBO and ESPN starting to join established providers like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video in serving up high-quality digital TV on demand.

“Speed into the home has actually gone up,” Weaver says. “Now, the limiting factor is not necessarily the pipe coming into your house. It’s actually the speed you get within your four walls.”

He’s certainly right about the fact that wireless routers are not the most lovely of tech products, particularly if you have to spend much time dealing with adminstrative tasks through most manufacturers’ websites—this is where you truly see that 1990s software influence that eero says it’s tackling.

To really take Wi-Fi into the future, though, would require one more step: using neighboring in-home mesh networks to form a larger, more widespread mesh network that blankets large areas with high-performing wireless Internet.

“We’re really focusing on nailing the home experience first,” Weaver says coyly. But, as someone who’s been obsessed over better Wi-Fi since he was a kid, Weaver also allows that the topic of widespread mesh networks is something that’ll be worth “a lot of conversations over the next couple of years.”