“The Chinese would have a lot less trouble in the U.S. if they would just release their source code,” David Burgess told me over breakfast in the quiet Palm Court restaurant near Washington, D.C. “But they can’t do that,” he said, explaining that if cellular equipment provider Huawei were to release their source code, they’d also be releasing a lot of secrets.
“That’s why we’re launching our equipment as open source,” Burgess said. Burgess is CEO of Range Networks, which manufactures the infrastructure equipment that actually runs cell phone networks. “Carriers don’t have to worry about what might be in our source code,” he said. “They can just look at it.”
Range Networks already has several prototype cell networks using open source software up and running in the United States and elsewhere. The identity of the carriers working with Range Networks on operating the open source cell networks will be announced when the product officially starts selling on May 13. Meanwhile, all Burgess would tell me was that the cell network using the Range Networks equipment was “in the Great Plains area.”
Range Networks uses its own open source radio access network (RAN), a part of a cellular network that actually communicates with handsets. The company works with partner SS7Ware, which provides the HLR (home location register) equipment and software. The SS7Ware hardware and software are also open source and run on industry-standard server platforms. The RAN and the HLR interface with OpenBTS, the Unix-based application that presents the GSM interface to the cell phones working on the cell network. Burgess is co-inventor of OpenBTS,
The standards-based approach continues with the carrier-grade voice over IP (VoIP) telephone network that uses the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). The network uses standard SS7 signaling protocol and is completely interoperable with the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and with other cellular networks. This means that a carrier can drop a Range Networks cellular implementation into their existing network without having to change anything else.
With the announcement of the Range Networks cellular network products, carriers now have an option for relatively affordable carrier-grade infrastructure that’s not made in China. This could mean, for example, that whatever company emerges from Sprint multi-partner acquisition chaos won’t have to buy Huawei switches and networking products to keep costs down. Sprint can just use gear from Range Networks and SS7Ware.
Range Networks Introduces First U.S. Open-Source Cellular Platform
The only potential drawback for Sprint is that the Range Networks products are currently GSM-only. But considering how long it’s likely to take to unsnarl the Sprint merger, there’s probably plenty of time.
Outside of the United States, there’s no need to wait. The rest of the world uses GSM anyway, as do AT&T and T-Mobile in the States. For those companies the Range Networks system can be used as-is. This is important now that governments in the EU, New Zealand and Australia have banned or are about to ban Chinese telephone and networking equipment because of security concerns.
It’s the security issues that are making it hard for companies such as Huawei and ZTE. Following reports that their networking products were caught in the act of sending traffic to servers in China, these companies are being frozen out of one market after another. Unfortunately for carriers trying to keep their costs down, these equipment makers were frequently the low-cost alternative, which means that costs could rise for companies buying new networking hardware and software.
The introduction of open-source products by Range Networks comes at just the right time for these carriers. But it comes at the right time for other types of carriers as well. Those carriers include companies that serve rural areas in the U.S., and those which serve communities where the cost of wireless calling is simply beyond their means. Burgess said that his company’s equipment is already operating in locations such as sub-Saharan Africa and New Guinea where operators are seeing per-subscriber costs below $2 per month.
By being open source and industry-standard, Range Networks is able to keep costs down through both lower personnel costs and lower operating costs. For example, the Range Networks hardware can be configured so that an entire cell site runs on less electricity than a 100-watt light bulb (which you can’t actually buy any more, but it’s still a good comparison).
So let’s take stock here. A U.S. company that builds its gear in San Francisco creates cellular networking products that are far less expensive to buy and operate than its Chinese competitors. It uses open source and industry standard products. Everything the network does can be verified by carriers, customers and government regulators. Because it’s open source and industry standard, operations are easier because it’s easier to find people skilled in these systems.
What Range Networks has done is create a product family that is the right product at the right time. When the Federal Communications Commission makes it a condition for licensing that you not use Chinese products, you have an alternative. In fact you’ve got a U.S. product that may be both the low-cost and most secure choice. What’s not to like about that?