Marco's Blog

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Open Source Phone Network

2007-04-21 4 min read Projects marco

QTopia Greenphone (linked from Trolltech site)Granted, this is not originally my idea, but I cannot find where I read about it, so please get in touch with me if you know the source.

My frustration with mobile phone networks is growing. My own provider does a few nasty things:

  • Voice mail setup is idiotic: you have to enter your password even if the call dropped and you get in again; you have to listen through the introductory message even though you know the menu options
  • Contracts are bizarre: if you like the two year option, you’ll be happy, but why?
  • Surcharges are unreasonable: come on, I get 5000 free minutes, but you charge me per SMS? How stupid do you think I am?
  • Features are crippled: how come my phone can play my MP3 all day long, but I have to use your (expensive) MP3 for ring tones?

Of course, the answer to all these deficiencies is that it’s a way for the carriers to make more money. they compete on the base price, and jack up the charges for anything they consider non-standard.

All in all, it’s not different from the way airlines operate. If you want a basic cattle-car ticket from San Francisco to Maui, it’s an astonishingly low $125. Ah, but if you want to take your bike with you, then it’s an additional $150 each friggin’ way. Why can they do that? Because they know they don’t compete on “fringe” items. It’s a little like charging more if you are, say Jewish, gay, or obese. Before you start all jumping on because I offended minorities, let me just repeat my basic stance: the fact you belong to a minority doesn’t mean you can get charged extra, no matter what the minority.

(For the record: I didn’t choose those three minorities at random. Jewish people were considered a higher security risk back in the eighties and airlines were indeed thinking of increasing prices due to heightened security costs. Gay people were considered a health risk during the initial years of the AIDS crisis. Obese people to the day hear complaints they should pay for two seats when they get on planes. It’s all BS.)

So, what happens when airlines gouge you? You are right, a low-cost carrier springs up. What happens when cell phone service providers gouge you? Nothing. Yep, really, nothing. There aren’t many of them left, mostly because they merrily buy each other out (not one has gone bankrupt that I recall).

Now, on the phone side, there have been some interesting things happening. In particular, the open source movement has started looking into Open Source for cell phones. This includes the OS, apps, stacks, all sorts of things. Devices like the Trolltech Greenphone are an early attempt at making a thing that is open source from the ground up.

I think it’s not good enough. It’s good, but it’s missing the larger point. What we really need is an open source cell phone network. Open as in freedom, with anybody’s phone connecting to it, and no restrictions in usage. You pay for the bandwidth you use, no matter what you do. The setup needs to be simple, and people must be able to charge for the bandwidth you are using, but it needs to be simple.

How does it work? We have a protocol that allows any wireless device to connect to this network by providing authentication and basic service setup. The device used to connect (to the Internet, presumably) has a way of charging you from a central repository (same as the carriers), while your device (phone) has a way of accepting charges (via a private key / certificate installed on it).

The simplest way of doing this is to add software to wireless routers that use the ubiquitous 802.11 protocols. Your device connects to the router, the router asks for additional authentication, and from there on charges you for bandwidth used. Since this is the modern times and not some backwater of the nineties, bandwidth is auctioned off to the highest bidder by the lowest cost provider. All you need is basically an update to router software.

The big problem is to create the billing and routing infrastructure. Not a technical problem, but a payment problem. Of course, one could argue that all you need is part of the charges from the phone user to the bandwidth provider. But in essence you have a startup infrastructure cost that is not negligible.

Summarizing, here the ideas:

  • Modify existing wireless network infrastructure to grant access to the Internet for connected devices that authenticate themselves successfully
  • Create class of wireless devices that know how to authenticate and provide a full mobile phone stack
  • Create infrastructure to resolve IP connections and charge-back auctions

You do this, and you have a bid-for-play network that will automatically shrink prices when availability of bandwidth grows. And if someone is concerned about access from rural areas: the government is welcome to pay for Internet access there, why not for wireless capabilities?