On a Sunday last August, a group of hackers and activists from a group called Sudo Mesh climbed on top of a roof in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. They were there to install a node, or internet router, that would help the people living in the homeless encampment across the freeway get internet access. The People’s Open Net is an alternative internet system that, according to the volunteers building it, could not only increase people’s access to the internet but also their control over it.
It works like this: the community space below the rooftop node has installed another type of node, called a home node, and chosen to share part of their bandwidth connection with the People’s Open Net. The node on top of the roof will bounce that signal over to the homeless encampment where, conceivably, people will be able to connect to it just as you would any open wifi network.
Jenny Ryan, who co-founded the meet-ups for Sudo Mesh back in 2013, thinks internet access is a basic right. According to her, access is unjustly controlled by internet service providers (ISPs) who may overcharge in certain areas where they have a monopoly.
“You have huge swaths of Oakland where people can’t even afford a connection because their only option is paying 70 dollars a month to Comcast,” she says.
So the People’s Open Net offers an alternative by allowing neighbors to share internet connections with each other, and giving people ownership over the nodes that they install. The People’s Open Net aims to be a decentralized, democratic internet system that is community-owned and operated, one that is net neutral, and does not collect personal data.
Sudo Mesh volunteers meet Tuesday nights in the Omni Commons, a community space in Oakland. Over pizza, they discuss next steps for the project and teach other about the latest technologies. Ben Goering has been coming to the meet-ups for several months now.
“For me I think it’s very weird that most people, or most families, end up paying a monthly fee to their internet service providers,” Goering says. “And yet we’re all sort of renting the same amount from the ISPs instead of sharing it as a community”.
But opening up internet access is not as simple as climbing on top of a roof and plopping down an antenna. Ryan and the rest of the team are building upon years of work done by other similar mesh networks around the world, and modifying and re-working systems to fit their needs.
“The first year was primarily learning how the internet works,” says Ryan.
All of the code used to build the People’s Open Net is open-source, meaning it can be copied or modified by anyone. The project has secured donated bandwidth from the Internet Archive, a San Francisco based non-profit dedicated to the freedom of digital information, but to make use of it, the People’s Open Net needs to install expensive equipment to access the servers in Richmond.
They also need access to more roofs, which is not necessarily easy to find.
“People that are like, have roots in the community, and can do what they want with their roofs is like, rarer than you think,” says Goering.
Sudo Mesh meetings run on a consensus-based model, and the group relies on donations to finance hardware costs. Creating an alternative network with these limiting parameters can be a challenge, but for Ryan and the rest of the team, it is well worth it.
“This is but one piece of the puzzle of building a solidarity economy and shared resources, and not wasting resources that are all around us,” says Ryan. “The overarching goal is to mesh the planet, of course!”