Communicating in the middle of nowhere with OpenBTS

Posted on Aug 28, 2012 in Crisis Response, Events, Projects we like

A little while ago a shirtless man approached our camp as we were setting up in advance of Burning Man.

“I hear you guys have phones, is that true?”

“Yes, what do you need?”

“I need to make a phone call, I have a family emergency.”

David Burgess, head of camp Papa Legba, turns and points to a beige old-style touch-tone land line phone.  “There you go, just dial.”

The guy’s eyes light up as he picks up the receiver and hears dial tone.  He dials a number, then looks back up and says, “I’m getting a fast busy signal.”

“Already on it,” says fellow Papa Legban, Mark Petersen,  hunched over a laptop across the tent.  A few seconds later Mark looks up, grinning ear-to-ear and says, “Try again.”

The guy again dials, smiles and nods to indicate that it’s ringing. He procedes to have a hushed conversation.  Someone back home is ill.  “How is he?  Do I need to come home?” He has a 5 minute conversation and finally hangs up, thanking us all for letting him make a simple phone call and walks away.

Helping people communicate in times of crisis is one of the reasons I started Geeks Without Bounds.  Two years ago, shortly before we launched, I spoke with David Burgess while he was on his way to Burning Man in 2010.  For five years David and the Papa Legba camp have been setting up an alternative, free and experimental cellular network in the airwaves over BRC.  At its core, OpenBTS, the open source base transceiver station software project started by Burgess and Harvind Samra.

As of Tuesday, we anticipate 75% coverage over Black Rock City, including coverage at BRC Airport.  Right now the network is only accessible via test China Mobile SIM cards that were brought for this purpose, however, soon we’ll be flipping the switch that will let any unlocked GSM phone to register with our network.  When you roam into the Papa Legba  and try to make a call, you’ll get automated instructions that prompt you to pick a 5 or 6 digit phone number.   Choose your own number and that will register the number to your phone.

The cellular network is a collection of hardware and software, including YATE, Asterisk, Tropo and OpenBTS.   The kind folks at the Burning Man NOC provide us our Internet connectivity.   We have 5 towers covering the Playa, with WiFi access points at several camps.   If you’re at Burning Man and need to make a call, the geeks at Papa Legba at D:420 can hook you up.

(Live report from the Playa)