Range Networks Closes Series A Funding on the Back of Bringing Cellphones to Burning Man

Are cellphones a good thing at Burning Man? Many would say no, although if you ask me its unstoppable, so why worry about it. For the last couple of years, there has been cell service on the Playa . Range Networks built the system on open source technology and an experimental private network, and now they have raised millions of dollars.

Fierce Broadband Wireless has a story entitled “Range Networks: Burning Man’s Open Source Cellular Network Touted“. San Francisco, city of touts, of gifters and grifters (and shirt-lifters!):

A round of Series A funding has set Range Networks on a path to extend its commercial open source cellular systems beyond private networks and into the public carrier market, where it hopes to get its technology deployed in rural areas in the United States and in markets worldwide.

The funding was completed in December and was led by a couple social impact funds, which see Range Networks’ technology as key to bridging the digital divide in developing nations, David Burgess, the vendor’s co-founder and CEO, told FierceBroadbandWireless.

Range Networks, which was initially self-funded by its founders, has until now been serving the private network market with very little marketing. Deployments include a cattle ranching cooperative in Patagonia and research base in Antarctica. The company’s customers also include some small network operators in Indonesia and Zambia. Altogether, Range Networks has deployed a couple hundred systems since its founding in 2010.

One of Range Networks’ earliest claims to fame is that its technology has been used to deliver wireless communications network at Nevada’s wild and wooly Burning Man festival. The DCS1800 cellular network that the company built for the Burning Man event in 2011 attracted media and blogger coverage.

range networksRange Networks cellular systems are based on OpenBTS, its open-source software-defined radio implementation of the GSM radio access network that presents normal GSM handsets as virtual SIP endpoints. The software is available to the public for use in experimental networks. “We’re in a situation where more people know about our publicly released software than know about our company, and to some degree that’s been intentional,” said Burgess.

Range Networks is now shifting gears to target the public carrier market, thanks to the funding it recently received. “We also want to start establishing a clear connection between our software product, OpenBTS and our actual company,” said Burgess.

Read more: Range Networks: Burning Man’s open source cellular network touted for commercial rural use – FierceBroadbandWireless http://www.fiercebroadbandwireless.com/story/range-networks-burning-mans-open-source-cellular-network-touted-commercial/2013-03-28#ixzz2PQmtnbJS 

Is this another case of exploiting Burning Man for fame and money? Or, since presumably they didn’t actually close the round out there on the Playa, is it a case of “as long as it doesn’t happen at Burning Man, do all the Burner-related commerce you want”?

[Update 4/6/13]

This post has generated a lot of comments, coming down about 50/50 for and against. Here’s my own position:

Thanks Jessica for outing Range Networks as part of Papa Legba. Something tells me that camp might get Punk’d this year! I personally am on the side of Range, I’ve brought satellite phones out there for years. There’s always someone in the camp who is going to have to leave Burning Man just because they can’t get messages out. In the last couple of years, Android phones have been able to get cell service out on the Playa anyway – Range can’t be blamed for that, so why should they be vilified?
There are also some great apps like BurnerMap that enhance the experience.
The other thing we face is the reality that phones=cameras=video cameras.
I feel strongly that Range SHOULD be able to use Burning Man to raise millions, just as the dude that showed up at Opulent Temple during Carl Cox’s first ever BM set in an ankle-length glowfur coat, should be able to make millions selling Glowfur all year long “as seen at Burning Man”. If you want to fight against things like this, then you have to ban Decompressions, Trunk sales, fund-raisers for camps, and Kickstarter projects. Burning Man needs to stop making rules and banning things on the basis of “Sacred Principles” – which right now Larry Harvey at the BM Global Leadership Conference is talking about replacing anyway – and start embracing the community that makes the party with their creativity and $$$. “A rising tide lifts all boats” – let Burners profit together. There’s no point glorifying “Decommodification” and ruthlessly trying to protect the brand, when the event has now become majorly commodified and mainstream. The more popular it gets, the more ripoff merchants you will get: is the non-profit Burning Man Project going to raise funds from us just to sue the world?

We’re all different, if someone wants a cellphone, what makes you superior to them to say they shouldn’t have it? You have no idea why they need it. Maybe they’re on the medical team trying to save someone’s life. Maybe their kid just got taken to hospital. Maybe their camp ran out of drugs and they need to re-up!

I postulate a new principle: “ACCEPTANCE”. Why can’t we all just get along?


21 comments on “Range Networks Closes Series A Funding on the Back of Bringing Cellphones to Burning Man

  1. Pingback: TEDxTokyo 2014 | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

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  3. David, you seem like a really cool dude. Your heart is in the right place. It’s just so nice to escape for a week from the “default” world. The thought of Burning Man becoming a spring break-like weekend warrior type experience is unfortunate and cell service just seems like the thing that will do just that. Then again, if we dialed back a few years old timer burners have seen a lot of changes take place that have made them quiver. It’s great of you to have put this into perspective and nice to know there is a dude behind this technology instead of f-ing AT&T.

  4. I wonder how many more concert tickets Beats Antique sold in the default world by plying their arts for free at BM. And I point out here: they (Beats Antique and others) used their real name to identify themselves on the playa. I’m part of Papa Legba and I guarantee that the name Range is carefully, respectfully and intentionally removed from all of Papa Legba’s participation on the playa. This whole question of whether Range raised its funds through BM participation is like saying, “How dare you include your volunteer work and personal activities on your resume to help you land a job!!” And they didn’t even do that to the extent you charge. And I can also assure you, these participants are giving their own time, money and highly marketable skills to what they do at BM . . . just like the artists and other infrastructure engineers do. Why aren’t vehicles and heavy equipment so vilified as telephony? All your generators kinda irk me as a participant who wants to get away from industrial noises. These telecom engineers give more philosophical thought to how they affect the character of BM than you give them credit for. I challenge you to simply strike up a conversation with any of them, find out for yourself before lobbing oversimplified charges. They all have deep awareness of the impact of technologies when they take them where they haven’t been. The people looking at their phones that you note walking around out there probably ARE the engineers, testing equipment. It’s their art, their contribution. I reside at THE telecommunications camp and I never carry my phone. But I so sympathize with all the people who come to our camp for extended (bc we limit playa phone calls/services) calls back home to check on kids, elderly parents, critical businesses, Katrina, deaths, you name it. Slap the engineers. They witness all the tragedies around BM. They comfort and provide. Just not something you can get high and flail around to or shoot flames from. Maybe next time.

    • This is just another step towards the mainstreaming of Burning Man. What was once an oasis, redoubt, respite from a materialistic dog-eat-dog society raping the planet’s finite resource base is no more. Where once there was a gathering of malcontents, artists, and those disaffected with what they perceive as a society emphasizing conformity and technological ‘progress’ the event is increasingly on its way to becoming a mirror of the dominant society and an extension of a nanny state where originality, rebelliousness, spontaneity, free thinking, and unpredictability are, for the most part, no longer valued or wanted.

      I don’t believe this had to happen. Avoiding this would have required those responsible for the event to care more for their presumed idealism and less for their egos and bank accounts, but since that’s not the case……

      By the way Jerry Mander’s remarkable book ‘In The Absence of the Sacred’ shows quite clearly the impact of the introduction of technology on indigenous peoples in Canada and it’s not a pretty picture. Families that once actually sat down and spoke with each other, had dinner together, were now no longer communicating and were instead glued to the boob tube (with its agenda of selling). The same can be seen with cell phones. I’ve read articles recently where young people don’t know how to talk to each other, they don’t know how to ask for a date, nor how to converse on a date, cannot accept the ambiguity inherent in spoken communication, and actually prefer texting over talking. It’s a fucking crime but it keeps big bucks in the hands of the telecommunication companies.

      Imagine the future of BM where technology addicted idiots (unfortunately this maybe the majority of the US citizenry) are walking around, even in groups, and all of them are staring at their little gadget instead of relating to each other. Maybe we’ll also have art cars being driven by distracted drivers busy texting or posting on Facebook..Won’t that be a blast! Imagine the hilarity when they run over somebody or drive into an encampment? They could say it’s art or maybe even progress.

      Were my art placing hidden cell phone dampeners around BM I doubt you’d be so accepting.

      • I don’t think art cars impact the social cohesion the same way cell phones do. Cell phones and internet connectivity completely remove the temporary boundaries that separate BM from the ‘outside reality’. They also impact the way people interact with each other. I have no illusions that there will be increased technology introduced to BM but I mourn that the event is becoming become nothing more than a temporary Disneyland in the desert populated by tourists and shallow twits
        All talk about values etc. should come to an end, they’re nothing more than an egotistic pretense.

  5. Or we could just develop some self-control, use phones only when strictly needed, and ignore them otherwise.

    • We took some measures to limit use and provide a service that is “playa compatible”. One trick is that we don’t route inbound calls unless a number you recently called is calling you back. The other measure is that we limit call duration with a timer.

  6. The so-called ‘other reality’ no longer exists. Burning Man is no longer a temporary respite or oasis from a society hell bent on destroying the planet. What’s next TV reception? This is one of those situations where technology is introduced without considering of its impact. The event continues to erode. Ferris wheels are on the way!

  7. I’m one of the founders of Range Networks. At the risk of getting skinned alive online by fellow Burners, I’m going to identify myself and give some comments here.

    Range Networks did not “use Burning Man to raise money”. Range Networks supplied equipment and technical support for an experimental network run by volunteers. And yes, Range Networks and it founders wrote most of the radio access network software that made those systems possible, and they distribute most of it publicly at no charge. And yes, those founders (myself included) participate in the theme camps that run these networks, but so do a lot of other people for reasons of their own.

    The money Range raised has come from social benefit funds with a specific interest in rural development in poor countries. Real people in real places already benefit from the things that Range, UC Berkeley TIER and other groups have learned from running these networks on the playa. Take a look at

    for an example of a real-world project, a locally-run cellular network for an indigenous community in Oaxaca, made possible through these experiments.

    We (our camp) have been open about our activities, the groups involved and the technologies that we use. Our 2012 network is described here http://papalegba2012.wikispaces.com/. We offer our service for free on a best-effort basis, just like any other theme camp. We are telecom nerds and this is our idea of a fun DIY project. Range have tried to walk a fine line, being open about their involvement, but without turning the Burning Man network into part of a marketing program. Sometimes walking that line isn’t easy, especially when other people, who don’t understand Burner culture, are telling the story.

  8. No phones! That is a big part of the charm of Burning Man! We are all on playa time. The impact of cell service will be huge and distract us from the experience of truly unplugging from the default world. I saw people cruising around in their cars on cell phones last year and was so sad to see the shift. We are there to be in the moment, not on the phone!

  9. The technology sucked. I had coverage before the event. Then these folks started up their system and I had to text through their system, and it never worked. Just leave it all at home. Set up terminals for texting/email in the info tents, for real emergencies. But leave the noise of the grid somewhere else for the one week of BM.

  10. I needed to send two texts to the real world that made my 10 days there much easier. I put the phone in my truck the rest of the time. It was a big relief to me. I was very thankful to receive their gift.

  11. Come on! They’re open source! Open source software is very much in line with the principles of Burning Man. Furthermore, they are a small startup. Like it or not, cell service is a pretty substantial gift to BRC.

  12. Since Burning Man always coincides with the beginning of the school year, cellular communications are very helpful for parents who need to be in contact with their kids back home–or for anyone who needs to be in contact with their housesitters, pet sitters, etc.

  13. Part of the reason why Burning Man is so special is it’s an ‘escape’ from the world of work, social media, and telecommunications. It’s just you, me, the desert, and that giant octopus thing down the road.

    I remember seeing a couple people last year walking down the roads of Burning Man with their head facing downward buried in their phone and thinking to myself like .. LOOK AROUND YOU why on Earth are you glued to your phone!!! Some people who dropped by one of our camp parties even ‘abducted’ a guy from a camp because they saw him in the back just playing on his phone and being anti-social.

    No phones.

  14. Yeah…really…seriously…umm…no! When I first came to Burning man and discovered no cell service I was horrified. After a wonderful week of getting along without it, it was hard to be attached to it again. Please give us this one week of peace.

  15. Please, please, please do not allow this to go on. I love not seeing everybody walking around with them dam things glued to their ears. Really, people, just one fucking week a year you need to disconnect from the default world.

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