Burning Man festival and mobile innovation

The now iconic experimental community/music and arts event that is the Burning Man Festival, a counter culture event held in the Nevada desert, could soon be doing more than just providing much needed outreach for Californian hippies – it could be revolutionising mobile communications in the third world.

The venue is famous for its lack of attachment to the outside world, with mobile reception a non-starter. However, OpenBTS has been providing a paired down service for the 50,000 or so event attendees for the last three years. The low power service enables festival goers to stay in touch with each other, but the trial service has far wider ranging possibilities within developing nations.

"There are not too many places you can go where tens of thousands of people show up, all of them with cell phones, in a hostile physical environment – lots of heat and dust, with no power and no cell service," says Glenn Edens, one of the entrepreneurs behind the scheme. He’s not a newbie by any standards, having worked on developing the first laptops in the 1980s.

With the phone system only the size of a shoebox and requiring a mere 50 watts of power, the system has the potential to bring mobile communications to the most impoverished and inhospitable areas.

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