Frequently Asked Questions

Who, What, Where, When, Why

What are you up to?

We're providing a free communication service to Burning Man participants, using your existing cellphone. We're building our own cellphone tower, base-station radios, and free cellphone base-station software. If you bring a GSM cellphone, and respond to a "welcome" text message that we send you, you'll be able to send and receive text messages with other BM participants. You may even be able to make short phone calls. We know we won't have enough system capacity for the usual phone habits of 40,000 people. Text messages take less capacity (and thus let more people communicate using the system), so text is our primary service. When and if possible, we may support texting off-playa people, and/or making short calls to on-playa or off-playa people.

Who is doing this?

Go look at the People section of the camp plan! More seriously, though, we're running a test network for the OpenBTS project.

Why are you doing this?

  1. We think our services will be useful and fun for the inhabitants of BRC.
  2. BRC is a great test environment.
  3. It's damned fun.
(This is not multiple choice. All answers apply.)

Why "Papa Legba"?

The answer is very nerdy. Cellphones send "access requests" to our equipment. Our software decides which access requests can be granted and then passes them on to the rest of the network. If you know who Legba is, that might make sense.

Where is your camp?

We will be at 4:30 & G, not far from the 4:30 plaza, at the base of a skinny 90-foot tower.

Have you done this before?

We tried this last year, but our software had lots of bugs, and there were unexpected complications due to the presence of Commnet Wireless on the playa. We fixed the bugs, and we do not expect Commnet to be there in 2010.


Please do not confuse us with a commercial cellular service. We are a theme camp project, not your phone company.

What does this cost?

Nothing for users; it's a gift. We cover the costs ourselves. If you find our service useful, stop by the camp and say hello and maybe get a tour, sticker, drink, etc. (The cost to us is probably around $10k.)

Are you in cahoots with ATT, VZN, etc.?

No. Our cellular network is run by burners out of a tent on a playa. Your home cellular carrier has no idea that your phone is talking to us. You just happen to be carrying a pocket radio, and we just happened to implement a radio protocol that it knows how to talk.

What if the idea of phones at Burning Man offends me?

We don't want to see people yapping on their phones and playing with Twitter all day either, but we do like to be able to find each other and occasionally call our pet-sitters. If we even support speech calls at all, which is still not decided and will depend on system load, we will time-limit calls to prevent abuse, and we cannot route inbound calls for any but a few select users. Hopefully, with a combination of technical precautions and decent manners, those who want it can have a utility of an occasional text or short phone call without spoiling the atmosphere for everyone else.

Didn't Larry Harvey speak out against this?

Yes, so keep your phone on vibrate whenever Larry's around. Seriously, he's afraid that BM participants are not mature enough keep participating at a high level if they also have the option to merely sit back and communicate. Show him that his fears are not your reality.

What if I jam you?

That would be rude and a violation of federal law, but there's little we are likely to do about it, other than maybe send the Space Cowboys' UNIMOG to your camp to blast you with Britney Spears all night. Before we all go down that road, though, take a few minutes to ask yourself how many other projects you would vandalize and why you think it's OK to try to control the people around you. And if you do jam us, at least have the decency not to do it with some cheap piece of junk that will also jam aviation radars, microwave links, 810 MHz BLM public service radios, ISM-900 wireless projects, model airplane controllers, the Black Rock Rangers, on-playa ambulance service, and every other user of nearby bands.

Is there a larger agenda?

Yes. We use BRC as a proving ground for technology that will later find applications in disaster recovery projects and in under-served rural areas all over the world. There are OpenBTS systems in pilot trials right now on the South Pacific island of Niue, and in India, that were directly made possible by our testing at Burning Man 2008 and 2009. There will be other OpenBTS installations in 2010/2011 in Africa and South America, and our experience at Burning Man 2010 will help make those systems more reliable for the people who will eventually depend on them for daily communications.

No, I mean isn't there a larger on-playa agenda?

Yes. Over the years, BRC has unconsciously evolved to make an artificial separation between have's and have-not's. Those who have radios, like Rangers, staff members, or hams, can find and talk with their friends on-playa; the rest of us can't easily communicate over playa distances. We think that that social division is corrosive to the social fabric, and yet is no longer technologically necessary. So we're doing something about it technically. The social improvements are up to you.


Yes. This is completely legal.

Do you have a license?

Yes. WE9XJN. Here's a copy.

Are you hams?

No. Nothing against them and there are even a few in the camp, but we're not amateurs. The "X" in the call sign means "experimental" and this type of license is normally issued to a corporation, not an individual.

What about emergency calls?

We are not a telephone company and do not support emergency calls.


Joining the Network for Service

How will I use the network?

Once you are in our service area, you will receive a "welcome" text message with instructions for registering your phone. All provisioning steps will be through text messaging. (Last year, some people received the "welcome" message way too many times. We fixed that. You should not receive the "welcome" message more than once every couple of days.)

How will you know my phone number?

You will tell us in a text message when you respond to our welcome message.

Will my phone be compatible?

Just about any phone that works with T-Mobile or AT&T in the US will be compatible with us. (Verizon and Sprint phones and other CDMA phones will not work.) Also, many "Quad band" phones that work in Europe should work. It doesn't matter what kind of phone -- Crackberry, HemoDrroid, Hokia, or MePhone, for example -- any of those will work, if they use the right network protocol (GSM) and frequencies (GSM-850).

How can I find out whether my friend is on-playa and reachable via her cellphone?
We suggest that you text or call her cellphone number. If she responds, she's reachable. You could also try looking her up (or her camp) at Playa Info.

How long will my phone work on the playa?

It'll work a lot longer if you bring a car charger for it :-).

Do I need a SIM card?

Yes, but any SIM card will do, even expired prepaid ones. Most phones won't even try to talk to the network without one.

Text Messaging

Will I be able to send texts to people on the playa?

Probably, if they bring their phones, turn them on, and register their phones with us at their normal phone numbers. Try it while together in camp, before losing track of your friend out on the playa and only then texting them for the first time. We'll try to deliver messages quickly to phones that are on. For phones that have registered with us but which are temporarily turned off or unreachable, we'll keep the message awhile, and send it after we see the phone come back.

Will I be able to send texts to the default world?

Probably, but your return address will be different from normal.

Will people be able to text me from the default world?

People might be able to reply to texts you send. We're working on it. But people will not be able to send anything to you unless you send to them first.

Speech Calls

Will I be able to call people on the Playa?

Maybe, but only if they have also registered their phones with us at their normal phone numbers. Calls will be limited to just a few minutes to prevent abuse.

Will I be able to call the default world?

Maybe. We haven't decided yet. If you can, your call will be limited to just a few minutes.

Will people be able to call me from the default world?

No. The default world will not be able to call in. If a return message is important, the default world can leave you a voice mail somewhere and you can check it yourself.

What happens if I dial 911? 112? 999?

Let's not find out. Go find a ranger or law enforcement officer instead. We're just a theme camp; none of the BRC emergency service providers have made themselves reachable via our network. If you work in emergency services, and you'd like to participate, come talk with us.

Will I be able to use The Twitter, The Facebook, The Go Ogle, The Youtube?


Who should I call if my phone doesn't work?

Silly! You can't call anybody if your phone doesn't work. But you could visit our Papa Legba camp near 4:30 and G, under the tall skinny tower, and we'll try to help.

No, I mean, how can I call your camp?

Our personal phone numbers are unlisted, so far. If we get some volunteers around camp who want to answer texts or calls from the public, they'll answer at "311".


What technology are you using?

The air interface is 2G GSM. The speech channel is SIP signaling and RTP traffic. Text messages are processed with a combination of RFC-3824 SIP/SIMPLE, HTTP and SMTP. There is no data support. Off-playa contact happens by using the Internet connection provided to Burning Man participants by a separate project.

What is your equipment?

Probably the same equipment used in our pilot network in Niue, but modified slightly for the GSM-850 band. It will be very similar to the the equipment we ran for Burning Man 2009, but with more mature software.

What frequencies are you using?

We are operating on the "A-block" cellular frequencies, with handsets transmitting in 825-835 MHz and our basestations transmitting in 870-880 MHz. In the Black Rock area, these frequencies are licensed to Verizon Wireless under KNKN224. Verizon has granted consent for our use of this spectrum during Burning Man and we thank them.

What is your software?

The GSM part is OpenBTS. The VoIP part is Asterisk. You can download all of the code and build the network for yourself if you want.

If I have a USRP, can I run my own nanocell?

Maybe. Contact dburgess (at)