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MERAKI IN ECUADOR: Students in a rural school in Ecuador that is now connected to the Internet through Meraki's technology [click here for a larger image]. Image: courtesy of Meraki
Harlem's first Starbucks, heralded as a sign of urban renewal when it opened in 1999, sits at the intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, just down the street from the historic Apollo Theater. One recent weekday morning, customers of every imaginable race and socioeconomic stratum pour through the coffee chain's doors, where a massive portrait of its most famous investor, basketball great Magic Johnson, graces one of its walls.
I grab a seat near the window and try to get on a wireless network—of the three I can see, only one is open. Seconds later I'm checking my e-mail.
It's a lucky break—for all the promises of universal Internet, finding an open network in Manhattan is about as easy as catching a cab during rush hour. Michael Lewis, chief of the budding nonprofit Wireless Harlem, plans to change that.
"Let's take a walk," he says, when he finally arrives. We head north, past a string of laundromats, dollar shops and bodegas. Ten blocks later we grab a bench in the shade of the first apartment complex to be hooked up by Wireless Harlem.
"The median income in Harlem is $35,000 a year," he says, pulling out a sleek new laptop—well below Manhattan's $47,000-a-year median income recorded in the 2000 census. "At the end of the day when people make a decision about what they're going to spend money on, it's not going to be Internet access."
Enter Meraki. Meraki Networks, Inc., is a three-year-old company headed by Sanjit Biswas, a polite and bespectacled Massachusetts Institute of Technology student-cum-CEO on permanent hiatus from the pursuit of a doctoral degree in computer science. No one at the company ever mentions this to me—there is such a thing as being too earnest—but I later discover that meraki is a Greek word that means putting a piece of yourself into something you create; in other words, doing it with love.
The Next Billion Get Connected
There are two ways to look at the explosive growth of the Internet: One is to celebrate the fact that in the 15 years since it became commercially available, what began as an obscure military technology morphed into a global phenomenon that is regularly accessed by over a billion people. The other is to ask why the world's other five billion folks aren't online yet.
Biswas says his goal, and that of Meraki, is to "connect the next billion people." Biswas and his engineers are almost exclusively programmers, yet Meraki doesn't sell software. Instead it sells Wi-Fi hardware—relatively cheap, commodity hardware built by outside vendors. It's a combination of this hardware and Meraki's software that yields a kind of magic that Biswas believes will go viral the way few things have. His business model depends on it.
"We now have more than 1,000 networks around the world," Biswas says, "and all that growth was through word of mouth." Meraki doesn't advertise, in part because Biswas's team has been too busy to bother. "Our focus has been to create the best thing possible, and then trust that people will run with it."
Meraki's premise is as much philosophical as it is business or technological. Biswas's hypothesis is that empowering individuals to create their own networks, and perhaps even profit from them, makes it inevitable that grassroots efforts will spring up to bring wireless Internet access to areas where it is currently unavailable or prohibitively expensive.
The physical manifestation of the Meraki philosophy, the $50 Mini, is the size of two iPhones stacked on top of one another. It weighs just a few ounces, and if not for the enclosed antenna jutting out of one end, it would look like a basic phone charger. It contains less than $5 worth of components, including a few chips and a radio-frequency transmitter—essentially the same parts in every wireless router.
"If you look at the chip that we use inside," Biswas says, "It's a 180-megahertz MIPS processor—exactly the same processor that was used in those Silicon Graphics workstations that were used to render the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park in the mid '90s."