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A low-cost route to the Web

California start-up Meraki powers several thousand wireless networks across 70 countries, bringing the Internet to those who otherwise could never afford it.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2007



A sharp "Crack!" echoed across Musgrave, South Africa, last February, instantly shorting out eight years of work for Costas Criticos. Lightning fried a broadcast tower that had provided wireless Internet access to one of the city's working class neighborhoods.

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Mr. Criticos had relied on that tower as the hub of a nonprofit network that catered to students and low-income families. High-speed Internet in South Africa is several times more expensive than in the United States, so Criticos had shared a connection with neighbors at a discounted rate.

With that tower destroyed, the community's Web connection had closed.

But not for long. A friend of Criticos's visiting from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology brought with him several new gadgets from Meraki, a Silicon Valley start-up that has powered thousands of simple, inexpensive wireless networks around the world.

Like most networks, the neighborhood's busted system worked off a hub-and-spoke model, where information beams out of one antenna to each computer. If that central link breaks, every connection goes down with it.

But Meraki plays by different rules. Its wireless networks string together several small radios that bounce information from one to another. Instead of just radiating in a straight line, data can zigzag from box to box. That way, if one link breaks, the rest automatically reconfigure and find a different path for that e-mail or Web page to travel.

"In really just a few hours, we had the whole community up and running," Criticos says. "Not to mention, we set up the whole thing without the help of technicians, and our costs have never been cheaper."

The nonprofit network now connects several hundred people to the Internet, he says. And thanks to a hundred Meraki nodes placed inside a two-mile area, subscribers get broadband speeds for only $7 a month. (Compare that with South Africa's much slower dial-up access, which can cost $30 a month.)

Meraki's 25-year-old CEO, Sanjit Bis­was, can recount a dozen similar stories of low-income neighborhoods that his wireless boxes have helped. He talks about each one with a pride more reminiscent of a parent talking about his kids than a businessman rattling off accomplishments.

"Well, those are all the stories I can think of right now," he says with a hint of humor and modesty. In fact, over the past two years Meraki has powered several thousand wireless networks across 70 countries and opened up the Internet to people who otherwise could never afford it.

While Meraki is a for-profit company, much of its products wind up in affordable housing projects, poor neighborhoods, and developing countries.

"The mission of the company is to bring affordable Internet access to the next billion people," Mr. Biswas says. "We've always felt a social obligation in this work."

Meraki, a Greek word that means putting love and creativity into your work, doesn't offer Internet service. It provides the hardware and software to manage a network. At the heart of the business is the $50 wireless Mini – a wireless router that is neither the fastest nor most powerful on the market. But many have called it the most simple and inexpensive.

Even as major players in municipal Wi-Fi abandon their large wireless projects, those two attributes have carried Meraki networks into Amazonian towns, African cities, and Alaskan outposts. And there's no sign of business slowing down.

A company's wireless roots

Meraki and the Mini trace back to Biswas's studies at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. In 2002, he and company cofounder John Bicket worked on Roofnet, an experimental network that developed the "mesh" model for today's Mini. The project offered graduate students free wireless Internet access if they agreed to put up with the team's system tests and service tweaks.

The two PhD students programmed software and crawled on rooftops throughout the city installing their wireless kits. Unlike the Minis, which are about the size of two decks of playing cards, the Roofnet kits had to be carried with two hands and contained $650 worth of computer parts and antennae.

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