Every Thursday evening, on a poorly lit street around the corner from the Paramount Theater, groups of computer hackers and tech whizzes slip through a battered glass door under an unmarked blue awning. An intercom and a hand-written note are the only sign that the door leads to anything more than an abandoned storefront. Inside, a freight elevator takes them up a floor to a loft space furnished with battered couches and boxes full of technological jetsam: circuitboards, resistors and miles of tangled gray cable. Books on coding lie on top of disassembled hard drives. In one corner, a giant satellite dish watches over the room. This is a hacker space.
Sudo Room, as it is known, is a working space for technologists, activists and artists looking to collaborate on projects. Though on any given night the projects at Sudo Room can be as varied as the hackers themselves, one group, calling itself Sudo Mesh, is instead focused on one unified goal: building a free wireless network for Oakland residents.
Sudo Mesh is a collection of dozens of volunteers and is a sort-of Meetup for civic-minded programmers. On this particular Thursday evening, as seven participants kick back around a fabulously disorganized table, some with their feet up, others hunkered down over the laptops, debate ensues. They are deciding which elements of the project they should consider critical and start work on. One by one, they examine the individual facets of the project. Items are knocked down the list if they will take too long or aren’t needed right away. “We could work on that,” one of the programmers said. “But I don’t want to spend 5 years going through assembly code and come out an old man.”
The group’s plan is to use low-cost wireless routers mounted on top of buildings to beam signals from house to house. The setup, known as a “wireless mesh network,” is basically a locally controlled communications infrastructure that can be used as a way to connect to the Internet, or as a neighborhood “intranet”—a closed local network that allows community members to communicate.
The idea, from the perspective of Sudo Mesh, is to break away from centralized commercially owned Internet networks and provide free, community-based networks that are both more secure and more communal.
Though the Bay Area has some of the highest rates of high-speed Internet access in the country, many of Oakland’s more impoverished neighborhoods are still comparatively disconnected. Bruce Buckelew, the founder of Oakland Technology Exchange West, an organization that distributes free or low-cost refurbished computers to low-income residents, conducted a survey through schools and community fairs in West Oakland and found that only 30 percent of residents had a working computer and Internet at home. Overall, the city of Oakland got a grade of “C” for broadband availability, according to a study by the East Bay Broadband Consortium.
Bridging this “digital divide” in Oakland is exactly what Sudo Mesh hopes to do with the wireless mesh network.
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