Sending SMS messages through open source GSM network. Photo taken by Benedetta Piantella at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.
Sending SMS messages through open source GSM network. Photo taken by Benedetta Piantella at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.

UNICEF Innovation staff co-teach the Design for UNICEF class at New York University’s (NYU) Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) with Jorge Just, Adjunct Professor at NYU. Jorge is a former Design for UNICEF student who developed RapidFTR, the Family Tracing and Reunification application that was initially created from a Design for UNICEF class.

Each year students take a particular challenge area in a particular geography, and work closely with end-users in UNICEF Country Offices, develop solutions to pressing developmental and humanitarian issues. The 2012 course concentrated on emergencies and was open to all students at ITP. While it has already finished the work continues as some of the students develop their projects further. This is the first success story of the team that is developing an open source cellular network for emergency situations. More stories from other teams will follow.

Cellular Communication First Success

November 12, 2013 – ‘Hello World!’ text message recieved! This was the body of the first successful text message sent through the open source cellular network being developed for emergency situations. This cellular network, which can be setup at a fraction of the cost of traditional networks, is combination of open source hardware and software which incorporates the protocols and systems used by corporate telecommunications providers such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

The Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) is the standard system used to connect mobile devices around the world. GSM is a set of protocols and systems which allow mobile devices to connect to each other. These protocols have been developed into software called OpenBTS which has the capacity to run on any computer. With the proper hardware, OpenBTS can create a low cost system which allows cellular devices to connect to each other in order to share voice calls and SMS messages.

The hardware component of the system is a transceiver which is a device that has the capability to receive and transmit radio signals across a wide range of the radio spectrum including GSM bands which are used in cellular communication. This hardware connects to a computer running the OpenBTS software. This combination is what allows for a relatively simple and low cost solution for communication between cellular devices.

Connecting to the private Tele-source network. Credit: Nicholas Johnson
Connecting to the private Tele-source network. Credit: Nicholas Johnson

Our initial text message was a great first step in the development of this network. The text message showed that were were able to connect multiple cellular devices to our network and pass information from one to another in the form of a text message. Through this was a great success, we were unable to place a voice call between the two phones. This was due to the improper configuration of our database system. When a phone call was placed, the network knew how to find the destination phone but did not know how to properly establish a voice call. With a bit more configuration, we should be able to pass audio from one phone to another.

The next step in our cellular network development, after completing a call, is the creation of a web server which will run parallel to the OpenBTS software. This web server will provide an interface allowing users to control various aspects of the network through form fields and buttons, instead of typing long lines of code into the command line. The development of this web server will also allow the network to have programmatic access to certain parts of the OpenBTS software which gives the network the power to communicate with multiple devices in the same way. This is the core functionality need in order to set up an SMS broadcast system to be used during emergency situations.

Nicholas Johnson
Student of the NUY Design for UNICEF class 2012

For more details about the project visit Nicholas’ website

Related reading:

Learning from our students

Jorge Just – “Design for UNICEF” student

Gabriela Gutiérrez: “Design for UNICEF” student

Design for UNICEF at The Indian Institute of Technology

Art Center: Design for UNICEF final presentations