Burning Man Gets Its Own Country Code (Almost)

voxbone.logo.150px This week about 50,000 people have gathered in the northern Nevada desert for the annual Burning Man ritual. You really have to visit their website to get a feel for what it is about and the principles that guide this annual one week experience.

Started in the mid-1980s, Burning Man is designed to generate a society that connects individuals to their creative powers, participation in community, civic life, and the world of nature. Gathering on an ancient lake bed, about 140 miles north of Reno, participants decide how and what they’ll contribute to the community.

iNum.logo.120px But one guarantee – neither AT&T nor Verizon, neither Sprint nor T-Mobile had a cell tower within the horizon of the Black Rock City playa. As a result, working with Voxbone’s iNum service, up to 10,000 participants can receive SMS messages or, within capacity limitations, receive voice calls at country code +883, iNum’s worldwide country code accessible for free from many partner service providers and via local access numbers in 45 countries worldwide.

So, with no coverage by the commercial wireless carriers, how does this connect? Voxbone has worked with the Open BTS Project:

…. an effort to construct an open-source Unix application that uses the Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) to present a GSM air interface (“Um”) to standard GSM handset and uses the Asterisk software PBX to connect calls. The combination of the ubiquitous GSM air interface with VoIP backhaul could form the basis of a new type of cellular network that could be deployed and operated at substantially lower cost than existing technologies in greenfields in the developing world.

In plain language, we are working on a new kind of cellular network that can be installed and operated at about 1/10 the cost of current technologies, but that will still be compatible with most of the handsets that are already in the market.

BurningMan.CellNetwork The OpenBTS team has constructed a cell tower at Black Rock City, that, in the “leave no trace” principle of Burning Man, will be taken down at the end of the event on Labor Day (next Monday). Effectively working together, Voxbone and the OpenBTS project have demonstrated how to set up and install at a low cost a complete GSM-based wireless service in remote and otherwise unserviced regions of the world. Full details are here but it is interesting to note:

  • Who is doing this? This is an activity of the OpenBTS project. The entity legally responsible for the test is Kestrel Signal Processing, Inc.. The actual on-site engineers are David Burgess and Harvind Samra.
  • Is this legal? Yes. We have an experimental license, WD9XSP, and a consent letter from Verizon authorizing us to operate in their KNKN224 block A cellular spectrum. We are also coordinating operations with Commnet Wireless to prevent interference.
  • How much does the service cost me? Nothing.
  • What do you do for emergency calls? Nothing. We are an experimental service and do not support emergency calls.


  • My phone shows service but I can’t make a call. Why not? Only the first few hundred subscribers will get full speech service. Everyone else will just get SMS. There are two good reasons for this:
    1. We don’t have enough equipment for everyone to get normal speech service.
    2. Widespread speech service would change the nature of BRC in ways a lot of people would not like.
  • Will my carrier charge me for every text message I send or receive on the Papa Legba network? No, the Papa Legba network is a separate isolated network from your normal carrier’s network, and no charges will apply as no SMS is being sent or received through your normal carrier.

Note that “Voxbone is providing funding and most of our VoIP connectivity”.

OpenBTS Chronicles: We Loaded the Truck Today and co-founder David Burgess reports on getting it going:

So we turned on the PA for the first time today and immediately got swamped with registration requests, which is actually normal and a good sign given our operating conditions. We also got a report of someone receiving a text message at Center Camp. That’s only about 1 km, but the impressive part is that the guy with the phone was in a
sealed shipping container (the BRC NOC) at the time. We were delayed seriously by high winds that made tower work dangerous, so a 4-hr tower job took just over 11. But it’s up thanks to the heroic efforts of the rigger. It was a little scary to watch.

From the Voxbone press release:

Voxbone worked with the OpenBTS Project to automatically assign iNums to cell phone users at Burning Man, making them instantaneously reachable from networks such as Skype and Google Talk.

“We are showcasing how iNum can be used to connect remote or unconnected areas of the globe with the rest of the connected world, using cell phone infrastructures such as OpenBTS,” said Voxbone CEO Rod Ullens.

“In addition, we are demonstrating to people attending Burning Man that they can receive voice calls and text messages from services like Google Talk on their cell phones at the festival. Burning Man is a great event at which to highlight these types of services because the attendees are open to new ideas and new experiences, and we are enthused to be a part of that.”

The iNum service is provided free to users at Burning Man. At the same time, it will enable users to spread the word about how valuable iNum is when it comes to connecting the unconnected.

“In partnerships like this one for Burning Man, there is an opportunity to demonstrate a technology for quick and cost-effective connectivity to regions that urgently need it,” said OpenBTS Project co-founder David Burgess. “In this case, the connectivity is a convenience to Burning Man participants, but iNum also can play a critical role when war, natural disasters and other emergent situations require quick communication.”

Alec Saunders, in OpenSource Meets GSM at the Burning Man, asks “Why do this?”

Naturally it’s a nice showcase for VoxBone’s iNum technology.  More to the point, OpenBTS believes that by making inexpensive mobile base stations available built around open source solutions, telephone service can be made affordable even in the remotest parts of the world.

Would be interesting to hear how it turns out in terms of number of cell phones connected and conversations handled. but the project is certainly a contributor to the overall spirit of innovation and creativity encouraged by the Burning Man ritual.

Question: while Skype for Asterisk was just released this week, can we expect the OpenBTS Project to add a Skype for Asterisk channel to their PBX next year?

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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4 Responses to Burning Man Gets Its Own Country Code (Almost)

  1. Brian Wise September 9, 2009 at 2:33 pm #

    My experience with the coverage was contained for the majority of the week; I go out to the desert knowing that getting coverage for my phone is often more trouble than it's actually worth to me, personally. I've thought often of getting a satcom phone for the week to keep in touch, but since the majority of those calls are merely my Nervous Nellie issues kicking in (what if a tsunami hits? What if an earthquake drops the West Coast? What if Godzilla reawakens from the deep and stomps out Seattle?) I kick those thoughts to the back of my head and turn off the phone.

    Except that this year, I used my phone's alarm function to get up at the right time to go out and do the work I committed to doing. Fair enough, right? I could have bought a cheap $10 Ikea clock and planted it on the dash to wake up on time, or relied on my campmate to wake me by 8AM every day (he did, but I was awake every day save one).

    Thing is, I liked the service. I liked the concept, the attitude, the DIY hackitude and the capability of getting a network up and running.

    What I didn't like was the spam.

    Specifically, the spam text messages sent every ten minutes to my iPhone from the Papa Legba's team starting Friday afternoon at 1PM and ending just after midnight, Saturday morning.

    "Reply with your 10-digit phone number to use Papa Legba's experimental PLAYA-ONLY network. The system is very busy; please be patient. (NO EMERGENCY CALLS.)"

    For one thing, I didn't mind the first one. It gave me all the info I needed to opt out (assuming that the cell didn't keep going). I COULD have replied and said, "Knock it off, I'm not going for it" but I didn't.

    As a digression: three individuals took it upon themselves to traipse around the playa handing out flyers that were printed, front and back, with the ACLU response to police officers or other law enforcement "hassling you" (quote from the flyer). While I salute the initial endeavor, these guys handed me five hundred of the things and told me I needed to hand them out to everyone I met.

    Uh, excuse me? No no, that's not MY job, that's YOUR job. I am not your distribution system; I'm here to work and play and connect and have fun; I'm not here to contribute to the matter-out-of-place these flyers engendered. Burning Man is a Leave No Trace event; potentially, this was a LOT of Trace.

    I am a firm believer that the people who built the Papa Legba system at Burning Man knew what they were doing and went around the edge of the system in order to make sure they couldn't be held liable for little issues like, say, one hundred identical messages:

    "Reply with your 10-digit phone number to use Papa Legba's experimental PLAYA-ONLY network. The system is very busy; please be patient. (NO EMERGENCY CALLS.)"

    Sent to my phone. I also know that they only were able to support the higher-end modules (which calls into question the accessibility of the system in third-world countries if all those wonderful people can only get on the system with a 2008 or newer Blackberry, iPhone, etc).

    The question is, then, why did the people putting this out choose, voluntarily or involuntarily, to use the same tactics that cold-call marketers have figured out can't be satisfactorily blocked and occupy huge amounts of the text messaging space? While it's true that the email marketing spam industry now is more or less responsible for 90% of the world's email, it's also the reason one of the first things hosting services throw out for their consumer base is Spam Block.

    I believe on many levels that someone in the group or camp decided that they really needed to wreak havoc on their system and see exactly how many people they could reach. With greater numbers, they'd get greater success.

    But a once-a-day text would have likely served that purpose far better than one hundred text messages sent to my phone over a twelve hour window.

    As a result, I'm still pissed off at them and don't care how much their "service" was awesome, how neat the engineering was, how radical their idea of providing out-there-service might have been, or the technological and survivalistic capacities of their home-brewed network might have been.

    All of those factors utterly fail to mitigate the fact that these guys sent out a mass text message spam like a bunch of douchebags. They had technology they really HAD to share with people, but they also failed the first question of any technology advancement:

    Do people actually WANT $200 autovibrating gum stimulation toothpick simulators with vacuum action, or would they rather just use a wooden splinter?

  2. David Burgess September 16, 2009 at 9:13 am #

    Mr. Wise –

    Hi. I'm your head "douchebag". I congratulate you on an excellent, well-crafted rant. I also apologize for the excessive text delivery. Every time an unprovisioned phone moved from Commnet's service back to ours, it got a text message. It was not our intention to "spam" you; when we designed the autoprovisioning process we were not expecting another GSM network to be present on the Playa. This result was unexpected and we were not aware of the scope of it until after the fact. We had also assumed that people who wanted to use their phone for communication would respond, which would stop the messages. And we assumed those who didn't plan to use their phones for communication would turn them off, which turns out to have been a bad assumption in your case.

    How many messages did you actually receive, BTW? We had a collection of provisioned and unprovisioned handsets for testing, and did not see this kind of problem in our own phones. For example, I only got 4 copies of the message all week. We had heard reports of up to 12, but no more than that. You got a hundred? Really? Had we known the problem was at such a level, we would have shut down the system. We will certainly operate differently in the future.

    As for supporting only high-end models, the fact is that we do most of our testing with the cheapest used Nokias we can find. But that's a different topic.

    Again, I apologize for the problem, which is about all I can do at this point. That and point out that the "X" our the callsign means "experimental" for a reason.

    — David

  3. David Burgess September 16, 2009 at 9:24 am #

    Also, there seems to be an impression that Voxbone was fully funding this. That is not the case. Voxbone did provide some funding, along with other sponsors, but the total cost of the system was about $16k and the OpenBTS project founders funded a little over half of that of that out of their own pockets.


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