OpenBTS 4.0 offers new opportunities for Africa’s mobile operators – Targeting remote locations and the transition to IP

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Africa’s mobile operators are faced with a number of network challenges that will have major commercial consequences. One of the key ones is the need to transition to IP for both voice and data to reduce costs and to be able create a data network out of their legacy narrow pipe networks that is fit for purpose. A small start-up that is using OpenBTS to reach remote locations may have a contribution to make. Russell Southwood spoke to Paul Homburger, Range Network’s Director of Sales.

OpenBTS has long been regarded as an outsider technology and something the mobile operators and equipment vendors do not give much credence to. Its advocates point to the fact that you can use it to build a network that can leverage standard Internet technology to build a core network.

You can build out standard, low cost Wi-Networks alongside with low power equipment. It uses inexpensive software-defined radios for GSM calling that operate in the 700Mhz–2.4Ghz spectrum range. The network’s intelligence can either be at the edge of the network or in the cloud or in a standalone system. Access to the GSM stack is software-defined and access to the base station is through a standard computer running Linux.

The architecture collapses GSM and 3G into a single platform, thus simplifying the core network and enabling web services directly to mobile handsets. This will allow developers to innovate on and in the network. As one of Range Networks’ key investors Jim Forster sees it:” We want to be like Fedora for Linux for mobile networks.

Thus far it has gained little traction with major mobile operators and so Range Networks is focused on specific market niches: remote locations, disaster deployments, private networks and one-off networks for events. The latter is interesting as Range Networks ran a GSM network for 1,200 subscribers at the Burning Man Festival with 5 BTS sites covering 10 sq kms. It was powered by a mix of wind, solar, diesel and propane and calls went outside the standalone network using a public Airmax wireless network using SIP.

So this is all West Coast techies and doesn’t have much to do with us in Africa? Not exactly. It has rolled out in a rural community in Zambia, providing a service for 3,000 people including a market, a hospital, a school and residential areas. There are two BTS providing coverage of between 2.5-4 kms with backhaul via an internet connection using Wi-Fi. Other deployments include a solar powered version for a ranching co-op in Patagonia (where there is no road, no grid or no generator); a mountain community in Indonesia; and a research centre in Antarctica using satellite backhaul. As Homburger told us:”We’re starting to penetrate into Africa and we’re getting a lot of interest.”

But why might all this be interesting for Africa’s mobile operators? They’re not really hugely interested in remote roll-outs for commercial reasons: there’s no money in it and with voice revenues static or falling, their attention is on trying to make sense of data. Using equipment that is not from one of their standard “big vendor” equipment suppliers is a very difficult sell.

There are two reasons why the mobile operators need to pay attention to these developments. Firstly, regulators and the universal service agencies will eventually catch up with the need to provide voice and data to un-serviced areas and this is a technology that will deliver it more cheaply. Operators ought to concede that they will never go into these kinds of areas and start the process of cutting interconnection deals with these smaller, independent entities.

Secondly, building IP networks to carry GSM voice traffic rather than trying to get GSM networks to carry data comfortably must surely have lessons for whatever comes next in terms of core networks. The “big vendor” equipment suppliers might like to say that they’ve got it all covered but the next disruption will be things like Open BTS that can provide lower cost networks. So ignore this one at your peril…

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