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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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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.

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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.

"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."

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.