Range Networks sets sights on beating larger vendors, targets rural market

Startup Range Networks expects to expand beyond building private cellular networks this year and move into public networks in the United States and in developing markets, as it focuses on building out networks more efficiently and cheaply than larger competitors.

The company, which only got started in 2011, just announced that its Radio Access Networks (RAN) products now integrate into operators' existing, legacy SS7-MAP core networks. The announcement is in service of a larger goal: integrating its products with legacy core networks and then building out IP networks on a more cost-effective basis.

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. 

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. However, the company won't have an LTE product in the market until 2014, something that co-founder and CEO David Burgess said "grieves" him.

"We're trying to keep track of who does what for Voice over LTE so what when we do have a product we'll know who to market it to and how," Burgess told FierceWireless.

Burgess claims 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. Right now, the company is trying to get a handful of reference network wins on public cellular networks that interconnect legacy SS7 networks. Burgess said some will be in emerging markets in Africa or Central Asia, but also said there are candidates in the United States, Canada and Mexico. 

Range Networks has received Series A funding from Omidyar Network and GrayGhost Ventures, but Burgess declined to say how much.

Burgess also said that he sees the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet), charged with building the nationwide public-safety broadband network, as a ripe opportunity for Range Networks. He said small public-safety groups across the country will need to use 700 MHz spectrum to build out LTE networks. "We don't think they can afford to build LTE networks," which is why Range Networks' solution would appeal to them, he said.

COO Faith Sedlin said the company is focused on working with rural operators, not just those in emerging markets. "If it's rural, it's in our wheelhouse," she said.

Because Range Networks products use commercial, open source software, customers do not have to pay annual software license fees. The company makes money on equipment sales and support, and does charge a fee for access to software upgrades. "But what we don't do is charge someone a tax just to leave their equipment turned on," Burgess said. Long-term, he said, "by offering carriers a new model for software licensing that they like better we can become a more preferred vendor."

The company's deployments include a cattle ranching cooperative in Patagonia and a 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 was used to deliver wireless communications during 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.

Burgess said that "the transition into public network operators is the next challenge," and that the move to LTE is "just a nuts and bolts problem."

For more:
- see this release

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