Open Source Mobile Networks Could Solve Rural ‘Not-Spots’

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Lime Microsystems says its transceiver technology can make it cheaper for rural communities to get 3G and 4G

British startup Lime Microsystems believes open source networking technology could allow rural communities considered commercially unviable by operators to create their own mobile networks using freely available equipment.

The company, founded in 2005 and based at one of the SETsquared Partnership business incubators, has produced what it says is the world’s first programmable transceiver, which can be digitally configured for any mobile frequency band ranging from 300MHz to 3.8GHz and is compatible with 2G, 3G and 4G.

“It can be programmed by software so that you really don’t have to change your hardware in order to fulfil your frequency bands and standards.” Ebrahim Bushehri, CEO of Lime Microsystems, told TechWeekEurope.

Base station are belonging to us

transmitter radio rural © Gudellaphoto - Fotolia.comAlong with the baseband processor, the transceiver forms one of the two main components of a mobile base station and enables it to transmit and receive wireless signals. The baseband component, which processes data and voice information, is programmable, but until now it has been impossible to digitally configure the transceiver.

Equipment manufacturers have therefore had to produce chips geared towards one specific standard or frequency, but by creating a transceiver that can be programmed to different standards, semiconductors can be produced in bulk, lowering prices and making it cheaper to build the network.

“This means you get economy of scale, so all these fragmented markets can be brought together under the same umbrella and be addressed by the same set of components,” says Bushehri. “Hence you get the volume and the semiconductor industry relies on volume.”

Furthermore, the switch from 3G to 4G can be achieved using the same equipment and involves only an incremental cost.

Helping the developed world

Bushehri said the fact that open source platforms like Linux have been adopted by major firms and have been successful provides him with hope. The spread of Linux has allowed developers to create new programmes and services – something which a lack of hardware has prevented from happening in the networking industry.

However by creating affordable hardware for developers to work with, Bushehri believes there will be more innovation and more companies will create equipment and services. He believes the base stations could be created by a number of manufacturers thanks to the general availability of the chipsets, including, “most importantly”, the RF transceiver Lime Microsystems is producing.

“There is the potential for quite a lot of smaller players to get in on the act and utilise these chipsets to design base stations or equipment that extends wireless coverage to areas that are deprived,” he said.

The technology is already being used in a number of Mexican villages, including Talea de Castro, where 2,500 residents created their own network for a few thousand dollars. Calls and texts within the village are free and communications outside are significantly cheaper than if residents used one of the big telecom companies.

UK Rural not spots

Bushehri says smaller operators are reaching out to communities in Africa and claims there are potentially two million people around the world who cannot access or afford wireless connectivity that could benefit from his firm’s technology.

However he believes developing nations are just the starting point and that similar networks could be launched in developed markets too.

Lime Microsystems MexicoHe told us they could be used in the UK to address mobile ‘not-spots’.  Large operators do not provide the same quality of service to rural services because their suppliers charge so much for equipment, he said –  something that would not be the case if they used programmable hardware.

“At some stage, as the technology around open source matures, I believe even in developed countries where coverage is not good, you could provide equipment and software of this kind, bringing the cost down to a level that it would make sense to provide a high quality of service to fragmented communities in the countryside,” Bushehri predicts.

No LTE yet

Bushehri envisages a time when more communities will be able to create their own mobile networks using freely available equipment, but some advances will have to wait until the open source community catches up.

Lime Microsystems’ transceiver is LTE capable and could be upgraded at a very small cost, but there is no software platform available yet. However he assures us that this will change in the near future as more developers get their hands on the equipment.

“I do know of a number of efforts out there to provide LTE open source format, given that these developers now have access to hardware,” he says. “We are pretty much at the beginning of the road. I truly believe in the next ten years we will see a massive change in this industry and mobile access will be universal in that timeframe.”

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