Range has supplied private networks in remote locations, such as mines and government installations. One operates at a research station in Antarctica, providing GSM voice and text messaging to about 40 users. That network uses satellite for backhaul to the rest of the world, but it continues to connect the local users even when the satellite link goes down, according to Range. Burgess and a partner have also set up OpenBTS networks for the temporary city that takes shape in the Nevada desert during the Burning Man festival every year.
"Those networks are interesting, but they don't take the company where we really want to be in the long run," Burgess said. Range's focus is now on networks that are open to the public. About one-quarter of its business comes from these networks now, all in developing countries.
One of those networks serves a remote village in Papua, Indonesia, that can only reach the outside world via satellite. Residents of the village can now call and text each other and exchange text messages with the rest of the world using an OpenBTS network linked to a satellite transceiver.
The idea was to give the village its first cellular service and let service revenue come back into the local economy, said Kurtis Heimerl, a graduate student at the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions Group at the University of California, Berkeley. Customers pay 200 rupiah ($0.02) for a local text message or minute of talk time and 900 rupiah for an outside text message. Many already had phones, which they use when they travel to larger towns that have service, Heimerl said. The network went live last month and there are about 100 customers so far, said Heimerl, who also manages the public release of OpenBTS as a contractor at Range.
Range's next target is North America, where it again will focus on small carriers in sparsely populated areas.
"That's where the costs are highest and the subscriber density is lowest, and the income is also lowest," Burgess said. "It's where everything is working against you, in these deep rural areas."
Range's proposition could help rural carriers get started, expand their coverage or add 3G or 4G service, analysts said. But it won't overcome all the challenges they face.
Small rural carriers going up against the major U.S. carriers may turn to OpenBTS as a single platform for upgrading their networks to 3G or LTE, analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis said.
"That's, to some extent, a good thing for small guys, because they may be more willing to take risks," Jarich said. But it will be hard for Range to sell them on open-source software that's been proved out in Antarctica or Mexico, he said. "Trying to convince new folks to move into this space is going to be a tough sell."
Using standard hardware and fewer boxes can save money, but rural carriers also face higher costs for other components, such as linking remote base stations, Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research said.
"The big thing with rural is the backhaul and other issues," Marshall said. "It helps, but it's not a silver bullet."