Burning Man is the proving point for Earth friendly, open source Linux-based cell tower

With its super low-cost, solar or wind powered base station, OpenBTS has the power to change the world

This has got to be one of the coolest -- ehem, I mean hottest -- open source projects around. It is a solar/wind powered, Linux/VoIP based cell phone network, that works with any GSM phone and costs pennies on the dollar to install and operate. And it's being tested right now at Burning Man.

To summarize:

"The technology starts with the "they-said-it-couldn't-be-done" open source software, OpenBTS. OpenBTS is built on Linux, distributed via the AGPLv3 license and when used with a software-defined radio, such as the  Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP), it presents a GSM air interface ("Um") to any standard GSM cell phone, with no modification whatsoever required of the phone. It uses open source Asterisk VoIP software as the PBX to connect calls, though it can be used with other soft switches."

Here's a link to the full news article. Burning Man's open source cell phone system could help save the world

UPDATED 09/02/10: A couple of readers asked about 911 calls. I asked Glenn Edens to respond to a question e-mailed to me by one reader, Richard. Here's the exchange:

Richard: "My question is from a public safety aspect of this service. How are 9-1-1 calls handled? I work with 9-1-1 quite a bit with the state of CA and I am interested on what are the affect on PSAPs and Public safety folks should some one try to place a 9-1-1 cal since it is the universal number for help in the USA."

Glenn Edens: "We do not support 911 calls. Subscribers are told not to use the system for ANY emergency when they self provision and our FAQ is very clear that any emergency can only be handled by BLM Rangers, local Police and Black Rock staff. Attendees to Burning Man are also required to sign a waiver stating that they understand the event is potentially life-threatoning and that there are very few, if any, emergency services available (I do not have the exact wording handy). There is an on-site ambulance service and first-aid station.

"The primary service we are experimentally providing is SMS text messaging with some limited voice capability as capacity permits. We coordinated our operation with Verizon Wireless corporate who graciously allowed us to use their licensed spectrum. We are operating under a FCC STA experimental license WE9XJN (please do not confuse this with an amateur radio operating license call sign, it is not the same). This is our third year of coordinating with Verizon and we are extremely grateful for their kind support."

One of the guys involved with the project promised to send me some photos of this year's setup, but I'm still waiting on that (hint, hint). I suppose he's been a little busy. But I dug up these photos from the founder's blog and another article on OpenBTS. One is of this year's base station being built and the other two are from last year.

All photos are linked to more articles about OpenBTS.

What makes me smile even more than the open source nature of the project is that these cell base stations are being installed in places where no other network connection is feasible. They are being used by people on the far side of the digital divide. Nice to see options become available for the people most in need in them.

UPDATED  09/13/10: Glenn sent me the final stats from the 2010 Burning Man OpenBTS test. "The statistics for Burning Man 2010 is over 40,000 cell phones registered with our base station, over 4,000 subscribers self provisioned for service making over 7,000 voice calls and over 50,000 text messages were processed.  We deliberately limited our range to a 31 square mile (77 square kilometer) area around Black Rock, Nevada from a 2 sector, 2 ARFCN base station with antennas atop a 75 foot (23 meter) tower.  The base station was solar powered during the entire event."

Like I said pretty cool/hot, huh?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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