How to Start Your Own Cellular Network
Micro Telcos and the Future of Communication
Expensive Cellular Service could soon be a thing of the past.
Recent technological advances allows anyone to start there own cell phone company, also known as a Micro Telco. All you need is some technical knowledge and a crafty spirit and you can be well on your way to becomming the next AT&T.
This document will explore why, where, and how you might start a cell phone company. Although be warned the Micro Telco business has many legal hurdles, including strict regulations regarding the use of cellular radio waves. I will suggest ways to circumvent these laws, and create a Micro Telco as viable private small business, or part of a community venture.
Why Start a Low Cost Cellular Network?
There is a very good chance that everyone you know owns a cellphone. Even in places with inadaquate service or where people make less then $2 a day, most people own a cellphone. The cheapest feature phones (aka dumb phones) have a calculator, games, radio, and sometimes even a flash light. In many poor regions phones are one of the few entertainment devices that people save money to purchase. Also many of the poor regions have inadaquate service or no service at all. This is perfect place for Micro Telcos to exsist. While large Telecommunications companies may not be able to justify their expenses for installation of their expensive cellular netork, small Telcos can use low cost cellular installations to provide basic communicaton services.
Click on map below to view interactive map of cellular coverage.
Cellphone Pricing is Unfair
The pricing of cell service varies greatly through out the world. Many Latin American countries have higher prices due to the lack of competition in cellular providers. Recently in Mexico there has been land mark legislation which will break up the Telmex, a company that currently has between 70-80% of Mexico's phone market. Telcel, whose majority owner Carlos Slim, is also majority owner of America Movil which operates in 16 Latin American countries. In Nicaragua, Claro (an America Movil subsidiary) has a virtual monopoly over large regions of the country. Recent regulation in Mexico have opened the door for competition in the Telecommunication sector in Latin America. Aided by innovation in low cost cellular hardware, Microtelcos, or small scale telecom operators, can play an important role in increasing access and affordability to rural and underserved regions of Latin America.
The high price of service has a real effect on the poor. In Nicaragua and Brazil the average person has to work 2 hours in order to afford a ten minute phone call. Yet in other countries, cell prices are significantly lower. This proves that there is a need to lower prices especially in poor regions, and has traditionally been done through the introduction of additional cellular providers.
The History of Low Cost Cellular Technology
In 2010 two open source softwares where created that emulated the BTS Station, the hardware used to create a cellular network. The first Osmocom (osmocom.org) created by Harlde Welte, and the second was OpenBTS (openbts.org) created by Harvind Samra and David A. Burgess. In 2013 Burgess left the Range Networks, the company that grew from OpenBTS, and started a new prokect known as YateBTS (yatebts.com).
Osmocom, OpenBTS and YateBTS still are activly developed and updated. Osmocom is the only fully open source project. OpenBTS and YateBTS have parts of their software that is open source and proprietary. They all used software defined radios. A software defined radio is a communication system that takes components that traditionally where hardware (amplifiers, mixers, filters, modulators, etc), and are implemented with software that is handled by the processing power of a personal computer.
Current Low Cost Cellular Hardware
The key to creating you own cellular netork is to have a SDR that is equiped to handle Radio waves in the cellular spectrum.
Ettus was the first company to offer SDRs, but many hardware solutions have been released in recent years.
Real World Deployments and Legal Work Arounds
There are quite a few real world deployments of low cost cellular networks. The largest is in Mexico with the non-profit Rhizomatica (rhizomatica.org). They have 10 locations through out the state Oaxaca. They are schedules to have 15 by the end of 2014, and have been given a consecions to operate in the region by Telcor, Mexico's Telecommunication borad. Originally they operated without a liscence in working with community radio stations in Indegenous communities that did not have any cellular provider. The legal argument was that if no service was avaliable, then the use of the cellular spectrum did not impeed on the commercial companies that held the rights to the spectrum. Furthermore these cellular networks are owned and opperated by the community, with Rhizomatica only installing equipment and providing support.
Endaga also has a deployment in Papua New Guinea. OpenBTS has been used at Burning Man, and there is an installation in Antartica.
Rugged Communication (ruggedcommunications.com) has a deployment in Western Panama.
Get Ready, Get Set, Go
So you want to start a Cellular Network? Well the cost of all the equipment is about $6000-$10000. I will update with a comprehensive list of equipment, but you can also contact Fariwaves, or Endaga and they will provide you with a quote, and help you figure out your specific needs for the region you are setting up your GSM network. For regulations its best to work in regions that dont have any celular network, or find a part of the spectrum that is not currently in use. Also working with the community, or community government has proven to work in Mexico, and in Panama.
If you want to start experimenting the cheapest SDR (Software Defined Radio) card can be purchased from nuand (nuand.com). They produce the BladeRF ($420), and they have a partnership with YateBTS. Nuand claims their card can do 4G as well has handle over 200 call simultaneously. Ettus has several cards you can buy starting at ($700)USRP1, but this hardware requires modification to the clock hardware. YateBTS, OpenBTS, and Sysmocom(Osmocom) both have a development kit that can be purchased for $2000.
In terms of software stack, Rhizomatica uses the Osmocom, which they claim is very stable. And they are running various networks, so they must be doing something right. They also have a good team of developers provide some support when they have time. They are a great non-profit and pioneers in the Micro Telco Industry.
If you have any questions you can also email me: firstname.lastname@example.org