From one Oakland rooftop to the next, volunteers expand free open internet network

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On a Tuesday night upstairs in North Oakland’s Omni Commons, a loose collective of hackers, activists, and tech-curious laypeople gathered around a jalapeño pineapple pizza to plan the next steps for the new form of internet they’re trying to introduce to Oakland.

Since January, 2013, Sudo Mesh volunteers have been building a mesh network, a free open web of interconnected specialized Wi-Fi routers and transceivers called “nodes” on the rooftops of sympathetic homes and businesses. If Comcast or AT&T are the supermarkets of the internet world, then Sudo Mesh are working on something akin to a community garden.

Conventional Internet Service Providers (ISPs) work on a “hub-and-spoke” model where everyone in a community connects to one central node that’s owned and controlled by a major corporation. In a mesh network, each router communicates with another, and ordinary people are able to own and control their own nodes. People who believe in Sudo Mesh’s vision offer up space on their roof and a portion of their internet bandwidth. Then Sudo Mesh volunteers show up with routers, radio transceivers, and ladders, and leave having set up a free open Wi-Fi network called something like “peoplesopen.net 65.132.68” that is available for neighbors or passersby to connect and use. The process is legal in California, but exists in a grey area when it comes to the terms of service that people hold with their ISPs.

“The internet should be a commons, like a park or a library, or whatever, where it doesn’t need to be privately owned,” said Sudo Mesh volunteer Mai Sutton. “If we have access to power, and then we have access to hardware, once that infrastructure’s there, we can just connect to each other.”

Sudo Mesh volunteers dream of a day when the whole community in Oakland can communicate with each other without needing to go through a central, corporately-owned internet network that they worry might someday be subject to censorship. “Sure, we need the undersea cables to connect to other countries and we need internet access points to connect to other regions. But in terms of connecting to your neighbors and other people within a city, you should just be able to connect to them without paying other people to do that,” Sutton said.

The very first node, “Node Zero,” is attached to a pole on the roof of Sudo Mesh co-creator Jenny Ryan’s house. In 2013, when she first heard about people working on mesh networks, the idea of an internet without a central node of control instantly appealed to her. “The internet saved my life,” Ryan said. She said she grew up sheltered in a town in upstate New York, and shared what she called her community’s homophobic views. The internet allowed her to connect to different kinds of people and ideas—including some especially spicy X-Files fan fiction—that led her to become the radical activist she is today. “I was like, ‘How sheltered am I?’ And then I just looked for every taboo topic I could possibly find,’” Ryan remembered.

At this point, the group has installed about 100 working nodes spread across Oakland, but due to the short range of the nodes, they mostly only interact with each other through the central internet. The organization, Sudo Mesh, is intentionally a separate entity from the mesh network they are building, which they call People’s Open Net. “It’s not owned by anyone. The network is just like the planet that we’re all part of it. You can participate in stewardship in whatever form,” said Ryan. People are responsible for the nodes on their own roofs, though Sudo Mesh volunteers will come by and tweak things if they need help.

While People’s Open Net is far from a ubiquitous network of intermeshing nodes blanketing the city of Oakland, this year Sudo Mesh is hoping to scale up their work dramatically. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency that regulates communications, moved to repeal its rules protecting net neutrality this year, Sudo Mesh found a new abundance of funding, bandwidth, and popular interest. Net neutrality—the principle that ISPs have a responsibility to allow people to use the internet without restrictions or fear of having certain uses throttled—is fundamental to what many tech activists cherish about the internet. Ajit Pai, the Trump administration’s pick for FCC chair, saw previous regulations protecting net neutrality as unnecessary, and moved to cut them in June. Activists are concerned that this could lead to monopolistic business decisions, or even censorship. To them, it makes a local, community mesh network an even more valuable alternative.

Some local advocates for an open internet responded to the new threat to net neutrality by supporting Sudo Mesh. Handshake, a “decentralized, permission-less naming protocol” that secured $10.2 million in funding from wealthy tech industry investors to distribute to the open source community, donated $100,000 to Sudo Mesh and the Omni Commons to keep working on tech resources for Oakland. Paxio, a local ISP, has offered to donate a gigabit of internet bandwidth to the mesh network if Sudo Mesh can create a radio connection from Paxio’s headquarters downtown to Omni Commons.

As Sudo Mesh grows, the group’s most committed members are trying to scale up their work to take advantage of the new resources without losing their non-hierarchical roots. The group began as a project of Sudo Room, a hacker space with a website that prominently features a hand-drawn flyer describing it as “a creative community that has open membership, is non-hierarchical and collaborative.” Those principles are fundamental to what distinguishes the mesh network from a conventional ISP. And so, at their Tuesday night meeting, Sudo Mesh members were trying to decide how they will make decisions. The conversation about decisions had spanned weeks, and nearly every point had been discussed at length, both in person at weekly meetings and online.

How does someone make a proposal?  How many people need to be around to discuss that proposal? How long should that proposal be online before everyone in the group has been given enough notice to block it? Should a block be called a “block” or a request for “more discussion?” Who is considered a part of the consensus-making group in the first place?

“By having a much flatter organization, you’re able to build things technologically that address issues that don’t come from the top, but come from the bottom,” said Sutton, who has been spearheading the creation of a new decision-making process. (The pizza was chosen more simply: someone recently collected everyone’s pizza preferences on the group’s wiki and jalapeño pineapple was the most popular.)

Sudo Mesh is being as deliberate as possible, because members feel that the choices they make now, and the way they make those choices, could create a new foundation for how people across Oakland connect to the internet and communicate with each other. As the members finish off the pizza and summarize this evening’s discussion so that further conversation can continue online, Sutton voiced her appreciation for the group’s willingness to take the process seriously: “This is, like, the seeds of revolution!”

“It starts in long meetings,” replied Ryan.

Sudo Mesh’s work might start in long meetings, but it’s carried out on Oakland’s rooftops. On a Sunday in mid-August, a group of six volunteers piled into two cars with a bunch of networking equipment and drove down to East Oakland where they met with organizers from Liberating Ourselves Locally (LOL), a hacker space led by queer and trans people of color. Their mission was to install a new mesh node on LOL’s roof, pointed to a homeless encampment across the street known as The Village, giving the residents there free internet access.

LOL organizers let the Sudo Mesh volunteers onto the roof where they attached a radio transceiver to a pipe and pointed it down across the street. After some troubleshooting, the group eventually concluded that they had done their job and went home. But installing a node is not enough to ensure that someone can actually use it. After spending five hours to get the node working, no one actually went into The Village to show the residents there how to connect to the network. “We were tired,” said Ryan.

A few weeks later, Jodii Everett and Aaron Edmond, two residents of The Village, tried to connect to Sudo Mesh’s node with their phones, but the network wasn’t visible. Edmond said he’d like to use the internet to check on his Electronic Benefit Transfer card that he uses to buy food and Everett said the connection would be helpful to fix his broken-down car. “I’m going to have to get online and figure out the price of parts and all that stuff,” Everett said.

Two nights later, Sudo Mesh volunteers puzzled over the potential causes of the node’s invisibility, wondering whether the BART line between LOL and The Village was keeping the signal from being accessible and whether a stronger antenna might make the connection work. But before anyone could try to fix the connection for residents there, in the early morning of September 11, parts of The Village caught fire, displacing 37 residents. Sudo Mesh volunteers haven’t formally discussed a plan to address The Village’s node in the wake of the fire.

Sudo Mesh volunteers are hopeful that with the new resources and the right work, they can blanket all of Oakland in a functioning mesh network within 5 years. If they’re able to achieve that goal, creating an internet that is less reliant on big companies like Comcast is only one part of their mission. If they’re successful, Sudo Mesh volunteers are hoping to help people feel like they really own their connection to the internet. “Which end of the internet is the important end?” asked Jake Waters, one of the earliest volunteers with Sudo Mesh. “Are we consumers just receiving broadcast content from the world, or are we all participants, and each of us an origin of content?”

Correction: This story was updated on September 15, 2018 to accurately characterize the homophobic views Ryan said she was exposed to during her childhood.

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