Many early adopters in the U.S., where wireless access is relatively affordable, have been nonprofits. Yet these organizations are not the sole or even the primary focus of Meraki, which has made the monetization of its networks nearly as easy as their initial setup.
"There are 500 million PCs out there that are not on the Internet," notes Biswas, who wants to empower local entrepreneurs to get those PCs online by making it easy for anyone to become their own wireless ISP. Through a web-based dashboard, all Meraki networks allow their administrators to set prices for password-protected access to the network; Meraki handles all billing and access issues.
Although the returns on a small wireless ISP have so far been small (the largest check Meraki has cut so far to a local network operator is $2,500 for a provider in Alaska), the company is betting that making Internet service the provenance of small businesses has the potential to take the Internet to places it has never been.
"What's cool about this is that it really works in a dense urban environment," says Wireless Harlem's Lewis, as he gestures at a cluster of newish apartments. This is the site of Wireless Harlem's first modest installation—just a few Meraki Minis connected to the Internet via DSL, beaming their signals in a radius that encompasses the common courtyard of the complex.
Just across the street, it's nothing but public housing. "You have people right across the street," Lewis laments, "who aren't connected and can't afford it. But those people over there [in the projects] can pull the connection from these people, here."
"The city has believed for a long time that we don't have a digital divide problem," Lewis says. "It's taken people like me to say, 'actually, no.'"
By dispersing Minis throughout Harlem, Lewis hopes to accomplish what countless other efforts—not the least of which is New York City's own stalled attempts to roll out municipal wireless—have so far failed to do. In a neighborhood with a high population density and a strong sense of community, Lewis believes that once residents understand the purpose of Wireless Harlem, the network will spread, physically as well as metaphorically, like a "benevolent plague."