Range Networks: Burning Man's open source cellular network touted for commercial rural use

A round of Series A funding has set Range Networks on a path to extend its commercial open source cellular systems beyond private networks and into the public carrier market, where it hopes to get its technology deployed in rural areas in the United States and in markets worldwide.

The funding was completed in December and was led by a couple social impact funds, which see Range Networks' technology as key to bridging the digital divide in developing nations, David Burgess, the vendor's co-founder and CEO, told FierceBroadbandWireless.

"Part of the long-term vision of our company is to provide very cost-effective cellular networks' technology to global Tier 1 operators with networks in the developing world," he added.

Range Networks, which was initially self-funded by its founders, has until now been serving the private network market with very little marketing. Deployments include a cattle ranching cooperative in Patagonia and research base in Antarctica. The company's customers also include some small network operators in Indonesia and Zambia. Altogether, Range Networks has deployed a couple hundred systems since its founding in 2010.

One of Range Networks' earliest claims to fame is that its technology has been used to deliver wireless communications network at Nevada's wild and wooly Burning Man festival. The DCS1800 cellular network that the company built for the Burning Man event in 2011 attracted media and blogger coverage.

Range Networks cellular systems are based on OpenBTS, its open-source software-defined radio implementation of the GSM radio access network that presents normal GSM handsets as virtual SIP endpoints. The software is available to the public for use in experimental networks. "We're in a situation where more people know about our publicly released software than know about our company, and to some degree that's been intentional," said Burgess.

Range Networks is now shifting gears to target the public carrier market, thanks to the funding it recently received. "We also want to start establishing a clear connection between our software product, OpenBTS and our actual company," said Burgess.

Range Networks is developing a series of network products that can be integrated with operators' SS7 and IMS core networks.

"We can take circuit-switched cell phone service over 2G and 3G networks and make the calls appear as voice over IP services," said Burgess.

The company's current products are designed to deliver 2G GSM and 2.5G GPRS communications, but it has 3G WCDMA systems in alpha testing with customers. Those products should be ready for market by midyear, said Burgess.

Range Networks has also begun working on LTE networks and expects to have either alpha or beta LTE versions late this year and commercial LTE products early in 2014. "We're actually not going to do HSPA. We're going direct to LTE," Burgess noted.

"We will be able to run all of these radio access networks on the same core. For a carrier that's going to be a big deal, especially in rural areas," he added.

Because Range Networks products use commercial open source software, customers do not have to pay annual software license fees, which constitute a major ongoing expense for network operators.

Burgess told Network World that his company can build the core of a cellular network for less than $100,000, or less than one-third what comparable gear would cost from major mobile equipment vendors. Similarly, Range Networks can set up a base station for about $30,000 to $40,000, again about one-third of the cost of conventional technology.

Range Networks is also making a big deal out of the fact that its equipment is American-made. Burgess contends this gives the company an inside track when it comes to competing against low-cost gear from Chinese vendors such as Huawei and ZTE.

Last year, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence recommended that the U.S. government and U.S. companies avoid using equipment from the two Chinese companies because they allegedly pose a security threat and potentially have ties to the Chinese military.

For more:
- see this Range Networks release
- see this Network World article

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