Cell system used in Antarctica may help to cover the Plains

Range Networks is now aiming its open-source OpenBTS network technology at small rural carriers in North America

Rural residents in North America may soon get a shot at better cellular coverage with an open-source technology being used in Antarctica, Mexico and Papua, Indonesia.

Range Networks, which says its technology slashes the cost of networks so much that carriers can make money on subscribers paying US$2 to $3 per month, is expanding its target markets to include small, rural carriers in North America. The company was founded in 2010 and now supplies equipment mostly for private industrial and government networks, plus a few public operators in developing countries.

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 Papua OpenBTS installation

Range Networks

A Range Networks OpenBTS radio is installed in Papua, Indonesia.

Mobile operators serving lightly populated areas anywhere in the world have a hard time making money because they have so much land to cover and so few customers to absorb the cost of covering it, according to David Burgess, co-founder and CEO of Range Networks. Range's answer is a system that talks to standard phones over a radio-access network the same way existing cellular systems do, but uses VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) on the back end.

At the heart of Range's approach is OpenBTS (Open Base Transceiver Station), an open-source software platform that can run on standard server hardware. OpenBTS is based on the 3GPP family of standards, which include the GSM, UMTS and LTE protocols used by most carriers around the world. Developed by Burgess and a partner, it's controlled by Range but is available in a public release that can be used for experimental networks. Range builds its systems using software-defined radios that can be tuned for different frequencies as needed.

Range can build the core of a cellular network for less than $100,000, compared to about $350,000 for gear from the major mobile equipment vendors, Burgess said. The cost of setting up each base station is about $30,000 to $40,000, compared to about $100,000 with conventional technology, he said.

One way OpenBTS cuts costs is by combining the functions of a base station and of some other specialized devices that handle traffic on a conventional cellular network. Range puts the software for all those elements on the base station and uses a standard IP core network to handle the calls from there.

Because the network is based on IP, it's also easier and faster to set up, because this can be done by engineers without training in specialized telecommunications protocols such as SS7 (Signaling System 7) or IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem), Burgess said. Ongoing operation is also less expensive, he said. For one thing, carriers don't have to pay ongoing licensing fees for the software.

Range's networks are designed to work with conventional phones and are compatible with SS7 and IMS, which allows for integration with carriers' existing equipment and for roaming onto other operators' networks, Burgess said.

"This isn't about building some weird, funky little network that only works with some weird, funky little phone," he said.

The company currently offers networks for 2G GSM and 2.5G EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution). It expects to come out with a 3G product later this year and LTE early next year. All can use the same core network.

Range has supplied private networks in remote locations, such as mines and government installations. One operates at a research station in Antarctica, providing GSM voice and text messaging to about 40 users. That network uses satellite for backhaul to the rest of the world, but it continues to connect the local users even when the satellite link goes down, according to Range. Burgess and a partner have also set up OpenBTS networks for the temporary city that takes shape in the Nevada desert during the Burning Man festival every year.

"Those networks are interesting, but they don't take the company where we really want to be in the long run," Burgess said. Range's focus is now on networks that are open to the public. About one-quarter of its business comes from these networks now, all in developing countries.

One of those networks serves a remote village in Papua, Indonesia, that can only reach the outside world via satellite. Residents of the village can now call and text each other and exchange text messages with the rest of the world using an OpenBTS network linked to a satellite transceiver.

The idea was to give the village its first cellular service and let service revenue come back into the local economy, said Kurtis Heimerl, a graduate student at the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions Group at the University of California, Berkeley. Customers pay 200 rupiah ($0.02) for a local text message or minute of talk time and 900 rupiah for an outside text message. Many already had phones, which they use when they travel to larger towns that have service, Heimerl said. The network went live last month and there are about 100 customers so far, said Heimerl, who also manages the public release of OpenBTS as a contractor at Range.

Range's next target is North America, where it again will focus on small carriers in sparsely populated areas.

"That's where the costs are highest and the subscriber density is lowest, and the income is also lowest," Burgess said. "It's where everything is working against you, in these deep rural areas."

Range's proposition could help rural carriers get started, expand their coverage or add 3G or 4G service, analysts said. But it won't overcome all the challenges they face.

Small rural carriers going up against the major U.S. carriers may turn to OpenBTS as a single platform for upgrading their networks to 3G or LTE, analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis said.

"That's, to some extent, a good thing for small guys, because they may be more willing to take risks," Jarich said. But it will be hard for Range to sell them on open-source software that's been proved out in Antarctica or Mexico, he said. "Trying to convince new folks to move into this space is going to be a tough sell."

Using standard hardware and fewer boxes can save money, but rural carriers also face higher costs for other components, such as linking remote base stations, Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research said.

"The big thing with rural is the backhaul and other issues," Marshall said. "It helps, but it's not a silver bullet."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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