Burning Man, the popular desert music festival, is this year featuring a free, solar powered cellular network for the duration of the festival which winds up on Monday. The open source software, OpenBTS (Open Base Transceiver Station) is a low-cost replacement for traditional cell networks. It allows mobile phones to connect to each other if they're all within range of the transceiver, or to connect with any other phones with Internet connection. It utilizes a Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) to create a GSM air interface on any standard GSM mobile phone. The founders of Burning Man, which began this week in Black Rock City, Nevada, have decided to trial the system by allowing the 50,000 or so attendees free access to the network.

The technology is relatively new and Burning Man has become a great platform to test out the software. “There are not too many places you can go where tens of thousands of people show up, all of them with cell phones, in a hostile physical environment – lots of heat and dust, with no power and no cell service," Glenn Edens, one of the three founders of OpenBTS, told Network World.

The GSM network operates on licensed bandwidth and the OpenBTS team have obtained a FCC license to work with the local carriers. At Burning Man this year, attendees will receive a text message saying ‘Reply to this message with your phone number and you can send and receive text messages and make voice calls.’ Edens also explained that "you can also make phone calls to any number, but you can’t receive them, except from other people at Burning Man. We don’t have a roaming agreement in place with any carriers yet. So calls from people out of range from Burning Man will go to voicemail … but you can check your voicemail."

In addition, the system is compact, approximately the size of a show box and only runs on 50 watts of power, thus easily supported by solar power. It performs as well as other GSM base models and has a maximum reception range of 21 miles (35km). Like other GSM cell networks, the OpenBTS network has the capability to connect with public networks and the Internet.

Like the Batphone being developed in Australia as part of the Serval Project, the OpenBTS system could provide mobile phone access to remote areas and disaster zones at a relatively low cost with little set up time.

Approximately 150 units have been sold with trial systems installed in India, Africa, and the South Pacific, in addition to the Australian Base in Antarctica. "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" added Edens.

Edens is obviously a proud of the OpenBTS’s technological achievements, "a lot of people said it couldn’t be done. But software-defined radio technology has gotten so good. It's our second generation radios that we’re testing now and although the three of us have done 98 percent of the coding work, we've had great support from the open source community."

A full‐power base station with software costs around US$10,000, compared to US$50,000 - $100,000 of other units in the same field.

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