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Last September, LWN pointed out the OpenBTS project, which is working toward the creation of a free GSM base station using GNU Radio and Asterisk. OpenBTS had just been demonstrated through the creation of a cellular network at Burning Man. More recently your editor, who had been looking in other directions, was surprised to learn that the OpenBTS developers are not allowed to tell anybody where to get the source from, despite the fact that it is available as free software. Intrigued, your editor decided to look into what is happening with OpenBTS.
OpenBTS is clearly an interesting project; who wouldn't like the potential of rolling their own cellular phone service? There are a number of potential applications, including special events like Burning Man, the creation of personal "femtocells," or the ability to explore how cellular handsets interact with base stations. The biggest target application, though, would appear to be the provision of inexpensive cellular service in parts of the world where the cellular industry sees no money to be made. In the rural parts of the developing world, potential customers simply cannot afford to pay normal cellular rates, and carriers fear that low-cost offerings, beyond being unprofitable, would endanger the higher rates charged in the cities. Using systems like OpenBTS, cheap hardware, and some interesting business models, it may well be possible to bring phone service into these areas in a way which is simultaneously affordable and acceptable to the large carriers.
So what is the problem with OpenBTS? One might think that an obvious trouble spot would be regulatory: spectrum for cellular services tends to be scarce and expensive. It is true that one cannot set up an OpenBTS station in the attic and expect to be left alone, but it also seems that the regulatory issues can often be dealt with, especially in places where cellular coverage does not exist. The real issues come from a different, all-too-familiar direction: "intellectual property" law.
When LWN first wrote about OpenBTS, the source code was not yet available. On October 24, 2008, the OpenBTS developers formally donated this code to the Free Software Foundation, putting it under the GPLv3 license in the process. OpenBTS is now part of the GNU Radio project. There has not yet been a GNU Radio release which includes OpenBTS, but interested parties can learn about it - and find out how to check out the current code repository - from the OpenBTS wiki on the GNU Radio site.
The transfer of the copyrights was the result of a direct intervention by John Gilmore, who, while certainly being motivated by the opportunity to improve GNU Radio, also likely saw the potential for trouble in the near future. The problem is that David Burgess, the primary author of the OpenBTS code, previously did GSM-oriented work for a company called Martone Radio Technology, Inc. Massimiliano Martone, the owner of this company, filed suit against David, alleging that the OpenBTS code contains Martone's proprietary information. David denies these charges, stating that GSM is documented in a series of open standards and, thus, cannot be proprietary. See this filing [PDF] for a lot of details about the history of the OpenBTS code, this case, and David's defense.
Whether this defense will hold remains to be seen; this case is pending as of this writing. The judge did, however, issue a preliminary injunction reading:
This is why nobody associated with Kestrel Signal Processing (David's company) can say anything about where the code is located. However, David does not own this code; the FSF owns it, and the FSF is not a party to this particular dispute. So the FSF is not subject to this injunction. The FSF is also uninclined to collect information on people who download its code. So the OpenBTS code remains available for anonymous download, this injunction notwithstanding. If Martone is able, somehow, to convince a judge that it has some claim on that code then the situation could change, but, for now, obtaining OpenBTS is possible - though Kestrel is not able to contribute any further changes to the FSF version.
There is, however, another issue that potential OpenBTS users need to be aware of. While the GSM standard is "open," in that it is publicly available, it is not a free standard; many parts of it are encumbered by patents. So anybody who wants to set up a production GSM base station powered by OpenBTS (or anything else, for that matter) must have acquired patent licenses from the various owners. Given that, one might wonder how the code can be distributed; David has posted an explanation on his weblog. It comes in two parts, the first of which is:
In other words, the FSF is distributing code with known restrictions on its use; this is a bit of a change for an organization which is not normally enamored of software which is only available for "private experimental use." But, evidently, this approach makes it possible to put the code out there under the GPL.
But, even if one accepts this reasoning, there is another problem to face: the GPLv3 text contains some strong language designed to protect users against patent problems. Anybody who (1) has the patent licenses necessary to actually deploy OpenBTS, and (2) contributes to or distributes the OpenBTS code must arrange for recipients to obtain the same patent protection. Needless to say, that is not really an option in this case; the owners of these patents (companies like AT&T, Ericsson, and Alcatel) have not expressed any great willingness to license them to OpenBTS users. So the only people who can distribute OpenBTS are, in general, those who can't actually make use of it. In other words, it would appear to be impossible to use OpenBTS in a commercial product in a way which satisfies both the patent requirements and the GPLv3 requirements.
Quoting David again:
The specific GPLv3 text being referred to would appear to be section 6d, which reads, in part:
So, as long as somebody is distributing OpenBTS without their own modifications, and they do not, themselves, hold licenses to the GSM patents, they need only point to the GNU Radio repository. This assumes that the operator of that repository is committed to making the source available for the requisite period of time - probably a good assumption when that operator is the FSF. That said, this is a fairly intricate dance designed to get around, in some sense, the patent licensing requirements of GPLv3.
And that is where things stand at the moment. In OpenBTS, we have a software platform which could be used to, among other things, bring affordable telephone service to large numbers of people who have no such service now. This code has been written to conform to published standards which are in use worldwide, and it has been freely licensed under GPLv3. Thanks to the current legal climate, though, this code currently has an uncertain future, a future which must certainly weigh on the minds of anybody considering making use of it.
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