This week about 50,000 people have gathered in the northern Nevada desert for the annual Burning Man ritual. You really have to visit their website to get a feel for what it is about and the principles that guide this annual one week experience.
Started in the mid-1980s, Burning Man is designed to generate a society that connects individuals to their creative powers, participation in community, civic life, and the world of nature. Gathering on an ancient lake bed, about 140 miles north of Reno, participants decide how and what they’ll contribute to the community.
But one guarantee – neither AT&T nor Verizon, neither Sprint nor T-Mobile had a cell tower within the horizon of the Black Rock City playa. As a result, working with Voxbone’s iNum service, up to 10,000 participants can receive SMS messages or, within capacity limitations, receive voice calls at country code +883, iNum’s worldwide country code accessible for free from many partner service providers and via local access numbers in 45 countries worldwide.
So, with no coverage by the commercial wireless carriers, how does this connect? Voxbone has worked with the Open BTS Project:
…. an effort to construct an open-source Unix application that uses the Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) to present a GSM air interface (“Um”) to standard GSM handset and uses the Asterisk software PBX to connect calls. The combination of the ubiquitous GSM air interface with VoIP backhaul could form the basis of a new type of cellular network that could be deployed and operated at substantially lower cost than existing technologies in greenfields in the developing world.
In plain language, we are working on a new kind of cellular network that can be installed and operated at about 1/10 the cost of current technologies, but that will still be compatible with most of the handsets that are already in the market.
The OpenBTS team has constructed a cell tower at Black Rock City, that, in the “leave no trace” principle of Burning Man, will be taken down at the end of the event on Labor Day (next Monday). Effectively working together, Voxbone and the OpenBTS project have demonstrated how to set up and install at a low cost a complete GSM-based wireless service in remote and otherwise unserviced regions of the world. Full details are here but it is interesting to note:
- Who is doing this? This is an activity of the OpenBTS project. The entity legally responsible for the test is Kestrel Signal Processing, Inc.. The actual on-site engineers are David Burgess and Harvind Samra.
- Is this legal? Yes. We have an experimental license, WD9XSP, and a consent letter from Verizon authorizing us to operate in their KNKN224 block A cellular spectrum. We are also coordinating operations with Commnet Wireless to prevent interference.
- How much does the service cost me? Nothing.
- What do you do for emergency calls? Nothing. We are an experimental service and do not support emergency calls.
- My phone shows service but I can’t make a call. Why not? Only the first few hundred subscribers will get full speech service. Everyone else will just get SMS. There are two good reasons for this:
- We don’t have enough equipment for everyone to get normal speech service.
- Widespread speech service would change the nature of BRC in ways a lot of people would not like.
- Will my carrier charge me for every text message I send or receive on the Papa Legba network? No, the Papa Legba network is a separate isolated network from your normal carrier’s network, and no charges will apply as no SMS is being sent or received through your normal carrier.
Note that “Voxbone is providing funding and most of our VoIP connectivity”.
So we turned on the PA for the first time today and immediately got swamped with registration requests, which is actually normal and a good sign given our operating conditions. We also got a report of someone receiving a text message at Center Camp. That’s only about 1 km, but the impressive part is that the guy with the phone was in a
sealed shipping container (the BRC NOC) at the time. We were delayed seriously by high winds that made tower work dangerous, so a 4-hr tower job took just over 11. But it’s up thanks to the heroic efforts of the rigger. It was a little scary to watch.
From the Voxbone press release:
Voxbone worked with the OpenBTS Project to automatically assign iNums to cell phone users at Burning Man, making them instantaneously reachable from networks such as Skype and Google Talk.
“We are showcasing how iNum can be used to connect remote or unconnected areas of the globe with the rest of the connected world, using cell phone infrastructures such as OpenBTS,” said Voxbone CEO Rod Ullens.
“In addition, we are demonstrating to people attending Burning Man that they can receive voice calls and text messages from services like Google Talk on their cell phones at the festival. Burning Man is a great event at which to highlight these types of services because the attendees are open to new ideas and new experiences, and we are enthused to be a part of that.”
The iNum service is provided free to users at Burning Man. At the same time, it will enable users to spread the word about how valuable iNum is when it comes to connecting the unconnected.
“In partnerships like this one for Burning Man, there is an opportunity to demonstrate a technology for quick and cost-effective connectivity to regions that urgently need it,” said OpenBTS Project co-founder David Burgess. “In this case, the connectivity is a convenience to Burning Man participants, but iNum also can play a critical role when war, natural disasters and other emergent situations require quick communication.”
Alec Saunders, in OpenSource Meets GSM at the Burning Man, asks “Why do this?”
Naturally it’s a nice showcase for VoxBone’s iNum technology. More to the point, OpenBTS believes that by making inexpensive mobile base stations available built around open source solutions, telephone service can be made affordable even in the remotest parts of the world.
Would be interesting to hear how it turns out in terms of number of cell phones connected and conversations handled. but the project is certainly a contributor to the overall spirit of innovation and creativity encouraged by the Burning Man ritual.
Question: while Skype for Asterisk was just released this week, can we expect the OpenBTS Project to add a Skype for Asterisk channel to their PBX next year?
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