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 $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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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.