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One of the cool things about Tropo is that it’s not trapped in the cloud.  Sometimes your cloud provider can go down.  But fortunately as an open source project of Voxeo Labs, pretty much anyone can spin up their own private Tropo cloud.   You can also run a hybrid cloud that leverages the best of both worlds.  Yeah, Tropo is good like that.

We set out to prove that it could be done, so we decided to pick the most unlikely place we could think of to set up a private Tropo cloud: on the Playa at Burning Man (of course).    Is it possible to set up an open-source telephone network in the middle of the desert?   We’re going to find out next week.

Tropo OpenBTS Burning Man

We called up our friend David Burgess at Range Networks about the OpenBTS network he’s been setting up at Burning Man every year for the past 4 years. Along with David, we mapped out the technical details of how to connect Tropo to OpenBTS.   We put together a team to work on integration and build a couple of Tropo apps to test on the Playa.  Over the weekend I got this message:

[8/20/11 5:53:45 PM] Tim Panton: First call from openBTS via vsat  out through tropo to the PSTN _WOOP_

So it looks like we *may* have some connectivity, but what can you DO with it?

Well, first and foremost we have an open source voiceboard app written by Chris Matthieu of Teleku and Nodester fame.  The Voice Board application is an asynchronous voice messaging platform. It allows callers to join in on live conference calls or leave messages for their friends.  Burners can connect to other Burners using the Voice Board app.

The other app was developed by Adam Kalsey (founder of IMIfied).  It’s an SMS Gateway which is providing OpenBTS its first SMS gateway to the outside world.  We didn’t want Burners to get bombarded with text messages from the outside world, so the gateway is set up to only receive messages AFTER someone has sent one FROM a phone connected through the OpenBTS network first.

Jason Goecke (co founder of Adhearsion) delivered the Voxeo PRISM server to Range Networks.  Lincoln Anthony & Tim Gridley (Voxeo Network Operations), Wei Chen & John Dyer (Voxeo Labs), Aaron Huslage (Founder of Tethr) and Tim Panton (PhoneFromHere) all have lent time and expertise to make this project go as well.

Our “man on the ground” this year is Voxeo Labs Chief Architect, Jose De Castro, who volunteered to go to the playa at Burning Man and help set things up.  In addition to the OpenBTS team, Jose will be joined onsite by Willow Brugh of Geeks without Bounds (who has assured me she will be at least “half naked most of the time“).

A parallel team working an app on the same OpenBTS network is being coordinated by the Technology and Infrastructure in Emerging Regions group at UC Berkley.  More information about their project can be found here:  TIER at Burning Man.   Additionally, Aaron Huslage is also working in parallel with Ushahidi‘s open source crisis mapping software to ultimately build a very flexible and portable “crisis communications in a box” system.

The camp where we’ll be testing from is called Papa Legba.  If you are heading to the Playa this year and would like like to participate in this groundbreaking test, I strongly urge you to check out the Papa Legba 2011 FAQ. Details about the kind of services and what kind of GSM phone equipment you need to connect to the OpenBTS network can be found there.


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