Burning Man: Ten Years of Communications Innovation

Posted by Sam Churchill on

The OpenBTS-based cellular network at Burning Man has the power to change the world, says Network World. The super low-cost, solar or wind powered base station, provide free cellular service to anyone with an ordinary GSM cell phone.

This is the third year that the low-cost, open source cellular network has offered free cell phone service to the 50,000-ish attendees at Burning Man, which began August 30, in Black Rock City, Nevada. Here are Burning Man 2010 blogs, art installations, Playa Forums and a list of radio stations. Commnet Wireless, a commercial cellular carrier is also providing cellular service at Burning Man this year. Burning Man supplies the backhaul for the Open BTS system.

“We make GSM look like a wireless access point”, says one of the project’s three founders, Glenn Edens.

It costs pennies on the dollar and it’s completely legal, explains their FAQ (Slide Share Presentation).

The technology starts with open source software, OpenBTS. It is built on Linux and distributed via the AGPLv3 license. When used with a software-defined radio like GNU Radio, which provides the signal processing runtime and processing blocks to implement software radios, it works with any standard GSM cell phone.

It uses open source Asterisk VoIP software as the PBX to connect calls, explains founder David Burgess. Two of OpenBTS’s three founders are a duo of wireless design gurus that make up Kestrel Signal Processing: David Burgess and Harvind Samra. The third is industry luminary Glenn Edens, the same Edens who founded Grid Systems, maker of the first laptop in the early ‘80s.

GSM operates on licensed bandwidth, so for any U.S. installation, the OpenBTS crew always obtains a FCC license and works with the local carrier to coordinate frequency use.

When attendees get into range and power up their phones, the system sends them a text that says “Reply to this message with your phone number and you can send and receive text messages and make voice calls.”

“You can also make phone calls to any number, but you can’t receive them, except from other people at Burning Man. Calls from people out of range from Burning Man will go to voicemail … but you can check your voicemail.”

The system is only “as big as a shoebox,” Edens says, and requires a mere 50 watts of power “instead of a couple of thousand” so it is easily supported by solar or wind power, or batteries. It performs as well as any other GSM base station which has a maximum range of 35 kilometers and a typical range of 20 kilometers.

Like other GSM cell networks, OpenBTS networks can connect to the public switched network and the Internet. Because it converts to VoIP, it “makes every cell phone look like a SIP end point … and every cell phone looks like an IP device. But we don’t touch anything in the phone … any GSM phone will work, from a $15 refurbished cell phone all the way up to iPhones and Androids.”

“After the Haiti earthquake, we sent a system that was installed at the main hospital in Port Au Prince. They had it working an hour after unpacking it from the box. The hospital PBX was down. They used it as their phone system for about two weeks”, Glenn Edens told Network World.

Kestrel Signal Processing has sold about 150 units, hardware and software, since last January, with trial systems installed in India, Africa, the South Pacific and a number of other countries. The team has also done a few private installations like oil fields, farms, and ships at sea.

Because OpenBTS relies on licensed bandwidth, the team hasn’t been targeting enterprises wanting private campus-wide cell phone networks, though that’s not out of the question, says Network World. Still, Edens says there’s plenty of work to be done for the 60% of the world’s landmass and the 40% of the world’s population that don’t have service, he says. Carriers such as Telefonica to T-Mobile have expressed interest.

It was ten years ago at Burning Man that Matt Peterson (Twitter) and friends built one of the world’s first large scale community LAN networks. They used Cisco Aironet and Lucent ORiNOCO gear. Matt Peterson’s PlayaNet which provided wireless connectivity to Burning Man in 2000, demonstrated that Wi-Fi had untapped potential. Here Matt Peterson’s Burning Man photos in 2000 and 2010. A Wired article explains the BM 2000 network.

Matt Peterson and his friends, including Tim Pozar and others, took their Wi-Fi field experience back to San Francisco and started the Bay Area Wireless Users Group. BAWUG’s PlayaNET Archives, beginning in April of 2000, contain the genesis of grass-roots community networks.

Burners Without Borders was a spinoff from the Burning Man innovations. They used mobile access points in New Orleans.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Wednesday, September 1st, 2010 at 8:37 am .

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