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Low-Cost DIY Cell Network Runs On Solar 77

Posted by timothy
from the seattle-wireless dept.
Shareable writes with word of the intriguing work of a Berkeley professor who has developed a "low-cost, low-power cell base station featuring easy, off-the grid deployment with solar or wind power; local services autonomous from national carriers; and an impressive portfolio of voice & data services (not just GSM). It's designed to connect rural areas in the developing world, but could have wider application like disaster recovery."
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Low-Cost DIY Cell Network Runs On Solar

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  • That implies temporary use. And that would require everybody who wishes to use the systems to have compatible equipment beforehand, or somehow obtain compatible equipment in the midst of a disaster. Would somebody's AT&T phone work with it? I'm assuming no. Then what about radio licenses, etc? I'm just not seeing it.

    • by ColaMan (37550) on Saturday August 27, 2011 @09:22PM (#37231510) Homepage Journal

      Look outside your tiny world a bit and realise that a large chunk of the world has settled on GSM for their phones.

      A Quad-Band GSM phone would have no trouble connecting to something like this. With regards to licenses - if you're having to install something like this because of disaster recovery, then you can pretty much assume that any administrative level of government has its hands full with other stuff.

      On a related note, there's an open-source GSM stack available, with a real-world island installation that (seems to) work fine -

      http://openbts.sourceforge.net/ [sourceforge.net]

      • by Teancum (67324)

        It is notable that the original article is explicitly using the OpenBTS software and hardware recommendations for their project. It is a good project to look through and something I'd love to experiment with myself in a couple of more remote areas that I know don't have cell phone coverage yet I know have on the order of hundreds of cell phone users who could legitimately be using this technology if it was available.

      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        Look outside your tiny world a bit and realise that a large chunk of the world has settled on GSM for their phones.

        Isn't that what the "G" in "GSM" means? "Global except for the USA and South Korea"

        According ot the Wikipedia article on GSM, the system covers around 80% of the world's mobile telephone market. So would that leave the US and South Korea combined as 20% of the world as counted by mobile subscriptions? Sounds a bit high. Possibly there are some other niche countries or services too, or they're

    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Saturday August 27, 2011 @09:23PM (#37231516) Journal

      And that would require everybody who wishes to use the systems to have compatible equipment beforehand

      I don't think you understand what this mini computer does.
      It's a GSM tower & PBX.
      It provides local calling/text/voicemail, web caching, and an audio BBS.
      Ontop of all that, it can use a wireless backhaul to talk to the local telco.

      It is explicitly designed for parts of developing countries that do not have cellular service
      and for disaster areas where the local cell service is down.
      People aren't picky about radio licenses in those situations.

      Would somebody's AT&T phone work with it? I'm assuming no.

      Yes, someone's AT&T phone would work with it, since AT&T uses GSM.
      A Verizon phone wouldn't work with it though, since the USA is one of the few countries in the world that isn't 100% GSM.

  • with solar or wind power

    In other words it uses electricity.

    • by qxcv (2422318)

      I think the inference is that it doesn't use much power, and probably has a UPS to deal with flaky electricity supplies (which is important in the developing world).

      • The inference is that it uses less power and could have been said explicitly without the need to green wash it. That it has a UPS is hardly new worthy. Renewable resource can supply power and that power can be stored to provide consistent power. I just would have preferred that it was presented as using low power without the need for 'green speak'. Of course, maybe I've been reading too much /.
        • by dbIII (701233)
          The "green" bit is not new, in Australia we've had solar powered mobile phone base stations and various repeaters for well over a decade just so they can be put on hilltops and other places where there's no existing electricity supply.
          Using a lot less power and all the other features is the interesting bit. Very interesting.
          I'm still amazed that now that we have solar powered pocket calculators people are pretending that the 1970s (or earlier) solution of powering equipment off the grid with solar is a big
        • by sjames (1099)

          Given that it's targeted for deployment in areas with poor or recently destroyed infrastructure, it isn't greenwash, it's practicality.

          • It's mobile and uses little power that is what makes it practical. Where it gets the energy from is really a separate issue that's been tied to it. Stating things like this implies that some things cannot run off of solar or wind. My microwave, tv, light bulbs and everything else in my house can run off of solar or wind. What would you think if manufacturers of TV's started marketing them as capable of running off of solar or wind. It wouldn't mean anything at all.
      • by Mashiki (184564)

        The biggest problem in the developing world is a simple steady source of power. And neither solar, or wind cut it. There's been more than a few places that I've visited in Africa which have gotten small scale solar. And lo, there's enough to run a fridge. Or the light. Not both, and that's pretty much the norm.

        If you want "green" power, you need to first have sustainable, and stable power.

        • by kheimerl (2448318)
          There have been a lot of recent advances in solar and wind. Our group, in particular, has focused on the storage side of the equation, storing the energy more efficiently and reducing waste. Either way, we are confident we can power this thing via only solar in areas without any traditional power infrastructure. However, you're right that stabilizing existing power sources would be a big win. We have a LOT of experience with power issues in rural India, and technologies to mitigate the problems. We'll be u
      • And what they didn't say is that power use is directly proportional to the number of handsets and the distance of those handsets. A 25W amplifier will require 25W of power....Talking to 1000 handsets is different than talking to 1 handset.
        • by qxcv (2422318)

          I'm definitely not a radio engineer, but that doesn't make much sense to me. More telephones will require more processing power, and more messages to be broadcast/received, but the power -> telephone relationship is not linear. Wireless signal strength is not diminished by the number of clients connected. I'd imagine the only wall they run into is processing power and available bandwidth on the backhaul.

          Obviously, increasing coverage area will increase power consumption unless you get a more efficient an

          • More handsets in a particular cell sector means that the cell is transmitting a much greater percentage of the time on the various signaling and traffic channels that would be quiet without calls. GSM has multiple channels. Some of them are "broadcast" channels that continuously transmit the GSM cell ID and other info. Other channels only transmit when paging a handset or signaling with a particular handset. More calls means the occupancy of these channels is much higher. Then there are the traffic chann
    • by slick7 (1703596)

      with solar or wind power

      In other words it uses electricity.

      By the Lords of Asgard, let this not be free!

  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Saturday August 27, 2011 @09:17PM (#37231500)

    Will high roaming fees apply when useing this?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      If those base stations are owned by the townspeople anyway, I highly doubt that. Essentially, all telephone communications between them and to the friended neighbor towns would be free, provided they keep the thing working.

      On that note: I would like to have my own WiMax base station on the roof (or the tower close by) please? (Imagine free high-speed Internet for you in your whole city.)

      • by HiThere (15173)

        And the connection speed would be less than 300 baud. You're talking about sharing one connection with an entire town.

  • Coming soon (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dunbal (464142) * on Saturday August 27, 2011 @09:25PM (#37231522)
    Another dead end project, killed by communications monopolies. Oh they'll find a reason. Not up to FCC standards. Using unlicensed frequencies. Interfering with existing communications equipment. Causes cancer. Whatever it takes. Don't you get it? They don't WANT you to have more access, unless you pay through the nose for it.
    • by hedwards (940851)

      It isn't licensed nor is it likely to be licensed and that's ultimately a good thing. If you think that AT&T reception sucks now, just imagine how crappy it's going to be when it's competing with multiple other carriers on the same spectrum completely unlicensed.

      In terms of a disaster area, this would likely help in the short term, but really you're better of using CB or HAM radios for that. Having unlicensed transmitters would hamper efforts to get the proper networks back on line.

      • by jonwil (467024)

        I think the intent is that this equipment would be brought into an area by a telco and be used with some sort of connectivity (whatever is available) to link back to the rest of the world.
        Then when the real towers are be brought back on line, this kit can be turned off.

        Also, this kit (or kit like it) could be used to extend cell service to areas where there is none because building a proper tower is not fesable. Set this up and link it back to the telcos network somehow.

        • I think the intent is that this equipment would be brought into an area by a telco and be used with some sort of connectivity (whatever is available) to link back to the rest of the world.

          There is no need for this to perform that function. Carriers have enough money to own COWs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_on_wheels [wikipedia.org]

  • Nice to see this given the priority it needs. Now, hook up one of these [plugcomputer.org], and you're on your way [shareable.net]

  • by kheimerl (2448318) on Saturday August 27, 2011 @10:29PM (#37231746)
    Hey, Kurtis Heimerl here. This work seems to have gone though the telephone game, so I thought I should make some slight corrections to the original (down?) sharable article. Firstly, I'm not a professor, I'm a graduate student (https://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~kheimerl/). Secondly, there wasn't enough mention of everyone involved. This project is an offshoot of the fantastic OpenBTS work done by David Burgess et al, now working under the Range Networks (http://www.rangenetworks.com/) banner. A lot of work on the open source projects have been done by Alexander Chemeris and Thomas Tsou, and they should be given credit as well. Lastly, the project is still under heavy development. It's worth noting the "prototype" used by Mobile Active had no clever power tricks, and was just a software modification of OpenBTS. We'll have something more substantial soon. Past that though, I'm happy to see people quickly understand what we're going for here. Great to know others think your work is interesting. We'll also be deploying a sample "BTS Application" at burning man this year. Check it out: (http://tier.cs.berkeley.edu/drupal/burningman)
    • by Ion Berkley (35404) on Saturday August 27, 2011 @11:17PM (#37231918)

      OK, Kurtis beat me to it, but I'm glad he got the chance personally to acknowledge how much of what this project is based on is due to the efforts of Dave and Harvind, but also the vision of Matt Ettus who's built a company on the much more obscure proposition of open source hardware and enabled countless cool projects like and including this one.

    • I'm working with The Serval Project attacking this same kind of communication problems from a different direction. Our focus is building a phone network with smart phones using their wifi radios. Back in June I spent a couple of days with Alexander Chemeris hacking OpenBTS and Serval's DNA [olsr.org] together to route a GSM phone call over a wifi mesh network to one of our android phones, that was a fun couple of days.

      At some point soon we'd like to tackle the problem of phone number registration on a network of Open

    • Hi Kurtis - or anyone else who has spent more time looking -

      Is there a schematic or parts list available for the hardware? I looked over the paper but it was pretty high level. I've been wanting to play with exactly this sort of thing for some time. Sorry if I haven't googled enough...

    • As I understand it, both Open BTS and the Range Networks commercial appliance version of it handle the voice/text part of GPS but the IP/Internet data part is still under construction. Is that correct?

  • ...are preparing to release their forces as you read this.

    Verizon: "RESISTANCE IS FUTILE."
    AT&T: "You may fire when ready."
    Sprint: "Release the Kraken!"
    T-Mobile: "Seig Heil!"

    • by Whuffo (1043790)

      There's a great big world full of people that exists outside of the borders of the US, you know.

      GSM phones are inexpensive and easy to find - and there's billions of people living in remote areas who don't have cell service. Like most of China, for example - you only hear about the "good" parts of that country, not the real China where people are called "peasants"

      Inexpensive cell towers like described here could change their world - there's no entrenched monopoly to compete with and there's not enough profi

    • You might want to change your battle cries based on recent GSM politics:

      Verizon: "You may fire when ready."
      AT&T: "RESISTANCE IS FUTILE"
      T-Mobile: "Shit here come the Borg! Arm the phas- ... RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!"
      Sprint: "Huh? What's going on over there guys?"

  • "...could have wider application like disaster recovery."

    Carriers already have a low-cost (for them) DIY cellular disaster recovery option, they're called Cells on Wheels [wikipedia.org] or COWs. COWs have their own power sources and can be rolled in for disasters, or to augment coverage for large gatherings (sports events or concerts) and are already set up to integrate to their own established networks.

  • Am I to assume this [googleusercontent.com] is the long overdue open source hardware that was promised to compliment the OpenBTS software stack? Because last time I checked the OpenBTS [mybigcommerce.com] hardware store's cheapest offering is $3,500.00 for a kit that I assume powers two devices with a range of 5 feet. Either something BIG has happened or Low-Cost is a relative assessment.
    • by Teancum (67324)

      Low-cost is relative, although for a typical cell tower the cost is about $50,000-$100,000 just for the raw hardware, sometimes a fair bit more. By offering a much cheaper alternative, it become easier to amortize the cost of the equipment for what may be seasonal use only (like in remote areas like the Burning Man gathering or some mountain resort) or perhaps for a 3rd world village where you may only reasonably expect a couple of thousand dollars per year of revenue from a whole village or even small cit

  • When you rely on a complex infrastructure to provide your hardware, and an equally complex infrastructure to give your hardware purpose - the idea that you are "off the grid" is laughable.

    • Well, yeah, you're not really off the grid unless you're living in a grass hut, wearing animal skins you tanned yourself, and chipping your own tools out of flint. But there is a gigantic continuum of "grid-ness" between someone living in a big city and someone living in a remote rural area without electricity, running water, paved roads, or telecommunications of any kind -- even if the person in the latter case makes a living from farming with tools manufactured in a big city far away. By your strict def

      • By your strict definition, practically nobody on Earth has lived off the grid for several thousand years, and that's just silly.

        Why is it silly to point out the truth? That 'latter person' depends on industrialized society every bit as much as I (a confirmed suburbanite) do - and it's ludicrous to believe or behave otherwise.

        • It's silly because "off the grid" is a modern phrase with a well-understood meaning referring to a way of life that does, in fact, exist in the modern world. You can try to redefine it all you want, but don't expect the rest of us to play along.

          • Had I claimed that they way of life didn't exist, you'd have a point. But I didn't. Had I redefined the buzzword, you'd have a point. But I didn't.

            But I see your true colors now, you're not interested in discussion, you're just a drive-by jackass with an ability to parrot words he doesn't understand and an IQ somewhere south of the glass of iced tea at me elbow.

        • by BaldingByMicrosoft (585534) on Sunday August 28, 2011 @02:17AM (#37232530)
          Dear Sir,

          To quote Wikipedia, which does a fair job of paraphrasing every other mainstream definition I can locate:

          The term off-the-grid (OTG) or off-grid refers to living in a self-sufficient manner without reliance on one or more public utilities.

          Off-the-grid homes are autonomous; they do not rely on municipal water supply, sewer, natural gas, electrical power grid, or similar utility services. A true off-grid house is able to operate completely independently of all traditional public utility services.


          I personally believe that there is some level of debate available, even within your chosen definition of OTG (which appears to involve complete independence from the fruits of industrialized societies on the planet). However, in addressing your original comment and using the generally accepted definition, I find nothing laughable and everything appropriate in consideration of this technology's potential legitimacy in an OTG environment.

          Best regards.
          • The term off-the-grid (OTG) or off-grid refers to living in a self-sufficient manner without reliance on one or more public utilities.

            In other words, the definition and the status are so fuzzy as to mean (Alice-In-Wonderland style) practically anything. That's not very useful at all. And you, like the writers of the article, seem to have missed that first and second paragraphs are at odds with each other. Hell, the second paragraph is at odds with itself.

            I personally believe that there is some le

            • In a nutshell, you made what you thought was some really smart (but actually just smart-ass) comment, got called on it and now refuse to accept even the simplest, understandable-to-someone-with-the-IQ-of-a-glass-of-iced-tea definition, and have to resort to name calling and insults to protect your fragile ego. Get over yourself.
  • Can someone tell me what hardware they're using? OpenBTS traditionally runs on USRP1 but I have a USRP1 at home and the picture doesn't look similar to what I have. It would be nice to run something like OpenBTS without spending ~$1500US.

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