Like some kind of techno-utopian Johnny Appleseed, a start-up called Meraki wants to cover the earth with ad hoc Wi-Fi networks
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.