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."
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.
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."