Build Your Own Cellular Network


A relatively inexpensive piece of hardware, easily purchased online, can be tuned to provide various types of radio signals. Someone running an OpenBTS network would use it to send and receive radio transmissions between the base station and a user’s cell phone.

A typical GSM base station, Burgess says, can’t do anything without a suite of components that maintain databases, perform call-­switching functions, and so forth. This infrastructure is expensive (typically around $250,000) and complicated to configure, and it needs to be stored in an air-conditioned room. Obviously, that’s impractical in the kinds of places ­OpenBTS is designed for. As a result, the system replaces much of the physical infrastructure of the core network with VoIP software–in this case, an open-source program called Asterisk that can be installed on any off-the-shelf PC.

Cell-phone users on an OpenBTS network can reach each other even if the system isn’t connected to the Internet, but reaching someone outside the network requires an Internet connection. On Niue, the group used five-gigahertz IP radios to link the BTS unit to Telecom Niue’s wired Internet infrastructure, four kilometers away. Burgess says that response time can get a bit sluggish if the Internet connection isn’t very good, but it doesn’t take much bandwidth to make the system functional.

The system deployed on Niue draws about 60 watts of power, supplied by three marine batteries of the type that many locals use on their boats. Because the system’s power requirements are so low, Burgess says, a base station could also run on solar or wind power.

OpenBTS re-creates the technology behind GSM (the global system for mobile communications), which is used by the majority of mobile phones in the world. Any GSM phone will “see” an OpenBTS network as a standard cell network and interact with it normally.

Like any cell network, an OpenBTS system requires an antenna to facilitate signaling. Different types of antennas can be used, according to the range the operator wants the network to have.

Courtesy of OpenBTS