Building Your Own GSM Network: A Demonstration of the Village Base Station Project

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jul 15, 2011 recently had the opportunity to test an off-the-grid GSM base station. Kurtis Heimerl presented The Village Base Station (VBTS), (link is a PDF) a low-power means of providing mobile network service without grid power or network infrastructure.

Below, Heimerl demonstrates the basic workings of a GSM networks and OpenBTS, an open-source platform that allows one to set up a cellular network at a fraction of the cost of a GSM network. Heimerl shows how phones find their base towers and settle on a frequency, and how OpenBTS condenses that process into a lower-powered, cheaper network.

The Village Base Station is built around voice and low-bandwidth data transmissions. It is an economical solution for rural residents who are outside of typical network coverage or power access, or for people living in situations where network outages occur. In a white paper presenting the VBTS, Heimerl and co-author Eric Brewer describe the project as, "essentially an outdoor PC with a software-defined radio that implements a low-power low-capacity GSM base station. Long-distance WiFi provides 'backhaul' into the carrier." Below are images of elements of the Village Base Station and screenshots from our 'hackday' in a large American city when we demo'ed VBTS with Heimerl. (Warning: If you try this at home, be aware of your local regulator's potential licensing and other restrictions for setting up such network/connecting to it)

Base Station

The benefits of the Village Base Station are described by Heimerl as follows:  flexible off-the grid deployment due to low power requirements that enable local generation via solar or wind; explicit support for local services within the village that can be autonomous relative to a national carrier;  novel power/coverage trade-offs based on intermittency that can provide bursts of wider coverage; and a portfolio of data and voice services (not just GSM).

According to Heimerl, "VBTS is essentially an outdoor PC with a software-defined radio that implements a low-power low-capacity GSM base station.....At around 20W, its power consumption is low enough to avoid diesel generators and the corresponding requirement for roads and fences. This also reduces the operating costs significantly. The base station can be deployed in the middle of the village, on a nearby hill, or in any other area with line-of-sight coverage."

In an informal test of the Village Base Station in a major American city, we were able to lock onto the low-bandwidth network and make calls while within a distance of 20 to 30 feet of the base station. The potential for systems like this in rural, disconnected, or disaster-struck areas is promising – with its portability and low-power requirements, The Village Base Station provides a way to stay connected even when traditional telcoms can't.



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