Meraki: Making Network Operators

By Naomi Graychase

September 28, 2006

This MIT-born firm has grassroots plans to bring mesh Wi-Fi connectivity to the masses who lack in-home broadband or dial-up.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, hundreds of millions of Internet users worldwide don't have Internet access at home -- not even dial-up. One new company is working to change all that.

"Our mission is to bring down the cost of access, to change the economics of access, and to bring access to people who haven't had it before," says Sanjit Biswas, president and co-founder of Meraki, a new company named after the Greek word for "doing something with soul."

"We see that there are around 500 million Internet users who don't have a connection," says Biswas. "They use cafes or other locations for access. We're making it easy for anyone to be an ISP. We want to empower tens of thousands of little micro-ISPs in their communities. We give them the tools to set up their networks -- that's different from going top-down and starting a big ISP. This is kind of grassroots."

The company grew out of a Wi-Fi project Biswas and his former roommate, John Bicket, were part of while graduate students at MIT. The Roofnet Project started out as a way to give free access to the bevy of grad students living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turned into a great excuse to climb on rooftops and meet new people.

"We became known as 'the roofnet guys' in Cambridge," says Biswas. "People would stop us in the street; we'd get invited to parties and barbeques. It was a community effort."

Not only graduate students benefited from Roofnet, however.

"We started seeing our stuff getting deployed in low-income housing," says Biswas. "We had figured out how to run our software on these little Netgear routers. I was at this site to do some measurements, at a low-income housing project. We wanted to collect a bunch of link level measurements to see if it was feasible. The routers would report statistics back to servers at MIT. They also provided Internet access by default. We did the test and found out that the residents started using the network. The resident coordinator at the site asked if we would keep the nodes around for a week, but we just left it up forever."

The first product to be developed by the young company, which incorporated in April, is the Meraki Mini. It's a small indoor 802.11b/g access point designed for mesh networking, currently available in beta for $49. The full release is expected to ship before the end of the year.

"What we're doing is adding more and more tools for everyday people to use," says Biswas. "We want to make it easy to set up free networks and also make them micro ISPs."

The full version of the Mini is expected to have an MSRP of $79, with a pro version available for a $20 upgrade. The full version will include tools designed to make it easy for the average Joe (or Jane) to become a network operator.

"We're adding more and more tools for everyday people to use," says Biswas of the full version. "A Web-hosted back-end, Meraki Manage, enables you to see the status of your network and set up a branded splash page so you can advertise."

The pro version will include billing features and a WISP incentives program.

Meraki's client base is varied and growing rapidly.

"One customer set up a community network in his hometown of Stapleton, Colorado, and wound up on the evening news," says Biswas. "Then we have another customer who became a rural ISP in coastal New Hampshire -- the cable and DSL companies decided it's not practical to offer access there. We work with a couple of NGOs providing VoIP in remote areas. We've got a couple of customers who are incumbent DSL providers in their communities. And then there are the low-income housing and housing developments."

Meraki's priorities are ease-of-use and affordability. "It's an easy way to set up a new form of network infrastructure," says Biswas. "For $1,000, you can set up a complete network that would cover a large section of an apartment complex. It's not a huge investment."

The company, which Biswas says "grew organically from a bunch of conversations about how we can share this stuff with the world," has relocated from Cambridge to Mountain View, Califorina. For the 24-year-old Biswas, who grew up in the Bay Area and did his undergraduate work at Palo Alto-based Stanford, it's a return home. The incentives for the move were both personal and business-related.

"The lifestyle is nicer, and it's easier to recruit people in California," says Biswas. Proximity to Google, one of Meraki's early customers, was also a big factor.

"Google is a beta customer of ours," says Biswas. "We're modifying our routing software to integrate with muni Wi-Fi deployments to help extend coverage into homes, apartment complexes and offices. Google's network provides the free network bandwidth to your doorstep, and then our devices let you create a smaller network to cover the hard-to-reach spots, often relaying the signal over multiple hops to reach clients. Google is also a strong supporter of our mission to bring low-cost or free Internet access to users around the world."

Biswas says his company will measure success, in part, by the number of people it connects to the Internet. "That's one of the first metrics we've had," he says. "It's exciting. We've been running for a month and a half, and we already see over 1,000 users."

As the numbers continue to grow, Biswas and his co-workers see the impact of the Mini and the access it can provide as substantial.

"That's been propelling all of us to do this," he says. "We think access to information is as important as information itself. In the third world, we could leapfrog an entire generation and go straight to broadband. We can afford to build radios for just a couple of dollars now. It's never been possible before. We're not even sure what the complete potential of all this is -- but it's huge."

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