It's the so-called firmware, or software embedded inside, that makes the Mini unique. Burned into a flash-memory chip, it's eight megabytes of the most refined code ever to grace the guts of a wireless transmitter. This software is so crucial to the global Meraki network that, according to Biswas, when you buy a Meraki you are also buying free firmware updates, rolled out at irregular intervals—for life.
"I think the thing that makes us the most unique," Biswas says, "is that we understand how to build a large network that serves hundreds of users at once. Part of that is packets, but there are other pieces. The network must be able to self-organize."
As long as each Mini can "see" at least one other Mini (they have to be within 100 feet of one another indoors or within 700 feet in areas where the signal is not impeded by walls or buildings), the network will self-configure. Minis that are actually plugged into the Internet act as routers; the ones that are not act as repeaters, retransmitting the signal of router Minis.
This might sound like a recipe for abysmally slow access, but according to Meraki, a single DSL Internet connection (spread across a mesh network composed of other Minis) can accommodate 50 simultaneous users. The Meraki dashboard, accessible via the Web, allows the administrator of a Meraki network to cap usage for each subscriber or even ban them outright to prevent against abuse (such as a single teen with access to a file-sharing network).
"We've had no problems at all in terms of performance," says Dave Cannard, co-founder of NetEquality, a Portland, Ore., nonprofit that uses Merakis to bring wireless access to low income communities. NetEquality's largest setup includes 350 apartments that use 75 nodes and just four DSL Internet connections.
"We like it because it's very intuitive and easy," Cannard adds. "People just plug it in and it works." Spreading the cost of high-speed Internet connections across multiple users means that each user pays as little as $1 a month for access in addition to a onetime initial set up fee of $25 to cover the cost of the Minis. The units can serve as wireless modems for computers that do not already have wireless cards, although there are cheaper options; among them is a $20 adapter sold by NetEquality.
"The Minis are at a very nice price point," says Michael Mee, one of the principle organizers of SoCal Free Net in San Diego, another nonprofit trying to bring connectivity to low income communities. "Other gear costs the same, but it's not as reliable as the Minis."
Traditional Internet service providers (ISPs) are skittish about letting their users share their wireless connections, because of the power of shared wireless nets to reduce the number of individual subscribers in apartments and neighborhoods. Both Verizon and Time Warner, neither of which responded to requests for comment, explicitly forbid their users from sharing their Internet connections, even though home wireless routers are often unintentionally left open—visible and without password protection—and therefore become de facto wireless hot spots.
Lesser-known nationwide ISPs, including Speakeasy and bway.net, have no such restrictions. "If our customers buy bandwidth from us," says Joe Plotkin, a free-wireless evangelist at Bway.net, "and they want to share it with neighbors, or publicly, that doesn't make them bad customers."
Once users have connected their networks through appropriate ISPs, the only remaining issues are the physical limitations of the routers. Biswas argues that this is rarely a problem. "Most internet users use very little bandwidth anyway," says Biswas.
Connecting the World's Neediest—For a Fee
Like the blooming of a hundred flowers, Meraki networks have sprung up on every continent and more than a few Pacific atolls. "One of our customers has a network with a rural school down in Ecuador," Biswas says, "where they had no telecommunications infrastructure—not even phones." By combining a local Meraki network with a long-distance wireless connection beamed from the nearest town, Bruce Schulte, a volunteer with the not-for-profit Network the World, brought access to schools in the tiny village of Salinas.