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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.

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"We were paying for all this with research grants, so we couldn't afford a van or anything like that," Biswas says. "So we'd take them on the subway. After setting up a hundred of them, I think I now know every street in Cambridge by heart."

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And Cambridge got to know them pretty well, too. In 2006, when the team's wireless signal had covered one-third of the city, students would stop them in the street and holler out "Hey, it's the Roofnet guys!" he recalls. Biswas got several unexpected invitations to parties and barbecues that year, including one in Mountain View, Calif., where he helped Google with its early foray into municipal Wi-Fi networks.

As e-mails from CEOs and NGOs piled up, Biswas and Mr. Bicket realized that their work had quickly grown beyond the bounds of academia. Suddenly, they had a flourishing business.

With their advisers' blessing, the two dropped out of MIT, moved to Mountain View, and re­­fined Roofnet into what is now Meraki.

Free access in the US

Almost immediately after launching the company in 2006, they sold a couple thousand kits to Google and hundreds more to groups along the West Coast. One early adopter was NetEquality, a nonprofit that rolled out free Internet access to affordable housing complexes in Portland, Ore.

"The mesh network design helps us keep costs down in so many ways," says David Cannard, director of NetEquality.

First, the wireless technology saved them from ripping open walls to install connection wires in older buildings. Even in new construction projects, he says, simply laying cable from apartment to apartment can be expensive.

Second, since all the Meraki radios talk to one another, the system automatically warns NetEquality if one of the boxes malfunctions, saving Mr. Cannard (or more likely a professional technician) from having to check each box to see where the problem lies.

The information-sharing scheme has allowed one 400-apartment building in Portland to split five DSL lines across 100 Meraki nodes, Cannard says, dropping the cost of Web access to about $1 a month for each apartment.

Of course, there were a few kinks and quirks along the way. Cannard remembers "freaking out" last winter when several of his networks suddenly collapsed.

"Nodes were going down all over," he says. "It turned out that since we just plugged the boxes into normal outlets in each apartment, the residents decided they'd rather plug in their Christmas lights. But so many unplugged them that they were knocking out access to most of their neighbors as well." NetEquality now screws the boxes directly into outlets so that they can't be removed.

Meraki's grapevine growth

Now in its second year, Meraki has yet to advertise its services. Simple word-of-mouth has carried its name through the global geek grapevine.

Criticos heard about it from Biswas's MIT adviser. A school in Ecuador learned through a friend-of-a-friend who worked for Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif.

Slovakian businessman Marcel Hecko recalls reading about Roofnet on the Internet a few years ago. Soon after Biswas formed his company, Mr. Hecko persuaded his colleagues that "we simply need to get as close to Meraki guys as possible."

Scrounging together enough money, he flew from Slovakia to San Francisco, boarded a train to Mountain View, and then with a GPS navigator in hand, walked 40 minutes to the Meraki office.

When he returned to Slovakia, Hecko rolled out a two-pronged plan for Meraki routers: a nonprofit effort in his home city of Bratislava and a growing business that sells Meraki networks around the world.

Biswas has encouraged others to build their own businesses based on Meraki's network. "Non­profit networks are crucial," he says. "But in some cases, turning it into a business plan is the best way to ensure the network is sustainable."

For example, Jim Bletas, head of WNI Global in San Jose, Calif., is currently negotiating with telecoms for a massive installation of Meraki nodes in poor areas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"We want to have a million units" with Internet access by 2009, Mr. Bletas says. "And if it works in poor, urban areas, we'll be looking at rural networks next."