Frequently Asked Questions

Why isn't this page publicly editable?

Wiki spam. Sad but true. So it's members-only editing now.

Who, What, Where, When, Why

What are you up to?

We are operating an alternative, free and experimental cellular network in the airwaves over BRC.
The network will be designed, manufactured, programmed and operated (locally) by our camp participants.

Who is doing this?

Go look at the People section of the camp plan! More seriously, though, here are some of the key organizations involved:
We also have some low-key corporate assistance from:
We promise not to mention them on the playa.

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.)

This is year #6 for you. Why do you keep doing this?

Because we learn a lot of new things every time and because there are a lot of nerd burners who think that rolling your own cellular network is a pretty cool hack.

Why are you called "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?

4:20 and I. Look for the tall mast and the red & black "Papa Legba" banner.

Isn't Commnet out there again? Will that be a problem again?

This year, we fully expected Commnet Wireless to be trying to cover BRC, although we do not expect coverage to be good once the city starts to fill out. They will probably operate GSM and CDMA systems in the GSM/CDMA-850 and PCS-1900 cellular bands. On your cellphone, they usually show up as AT&T or Verizon. To avoid confusion between our Playa-only free service and Commnet's default-world commercial service, we will operate our network in the DCS-1800 band, a band not used for cellular in the US, but widely used everywhere else in the world.

What Phones Work with Your Network?

Short answer is unlocked quad-band GSM phones, but there are more details further down on this page. Notably, we will be blocking access to phones with AT&T SIMs for reasons explained below.


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, or maybe even an expired China Mobile SIM. (The cost to the camp and its sponsors 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. When your cellphone is attached to our BRC system, it is no longer in the default world's networks and is some ways is a different device than the phone you use back in the default world.

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. 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. There is an interesting discussion at the official Burning Man blog about using technology on playa and about being present.

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 critical services in nearby bands.

No, what if the idea of cellphone on the Playa really offends me?

Digest this carefully before having a cussing, raving hissy-fit-tantrum on the discussion page: Commnet Wireless of Nevada is already putting cellular service over the Playa, whether we are there or not, and it will be a fully-connect, fully-routed, for-profit commercial service, whether we are there or not.

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. Today, there are OpenBTS systems on every continent were made possible by our testing at Burning Man in previous years. OpenBTS is also a candidate technology for providing alternative communications services in places and situations where the normal public networks cannot be trusted (think "Arab Spring"). Our experience at Burning Man makes these systems more reliable for the people who depend on them for daily communications or in extraordinary circumstances.

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 legal.

Do you have a license?

Yes. WG9XFR.

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".

What about emergency calls?

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


We are using a technology called GSM, used by about 80% of cellular carriers worldwide, the same technology used by AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, by nearly every carrier in Europe and Africa and most carriers in Asia and South America. We are, however, using a band that is not normally used for cellular service in the US, which means that many US-market handsets will not find our network without some deliberate forcing.

Joining the Network for Service

First, you need to understand something called SIM locking, one of those interesting intersections of geekdom and politics.

You will need a GSM handset that supports the DCS-1800 band and allows manual network selection. This normally means an unlocked, quad-band GSM phone.
  • Handsets sold for use with AT&T or T-Mobile in the US are GSM and most are quad-band, but most are locked, so they will only accept AT&T and T-Mobile SIMs. We will be rejecting AT&T SIMs most of the time, so AT&T branded phones will probably not work for you. T-Mobile quad-band phones will work, though.
  • Most GSM handsets sold outside the US support the DCS-1800 band and are unlocked and should work.
  • If you live in the US and bought a cel;phone for travel, it is almost certainly GSM, almost certainly supports DCS-1800 and is most likely unlocked, so it will probably work.

Blocking AT&T SIMS

We are not allowing phones with AT&T SIMs to access our network. These phones will be seeking service from Commnet's commercial network, and we will not do anything to interfere with that, no matter how unusable that service becomes.

Where can I get a cheap phone that will work?

A quad-band T-Mobile pre-paid is probably your best bet. We're researching model numbers and will post them here.

How do I get my phone unlocked?

If you bought a phone outside the US or bought it specifically for travel outside of the US, chances are very good that it is already unlocked. You can test it by trying a SIM from a different carrier. If the phone accepts the different SIM, then it is not locked.

If you bought a phone in the US and have had it for more than six months, your carrier might unlock it for you under the right conditions. Take a look at this handy Wikipedia paragraph.

There are also unlocking services available online for many phone models, but starting on 26 Jan 2013, thanks to an amazing abuse of the DCMA, it became illegal to use those services in "the land of the free".

How will I use the network?

Once you are in our service area, you will need to manually select our network, which will probably show up in your network list as "Legba" or "Test SIM" or "Test Network" or "001-01". If you can't find this network in your list, drop by the camp for an expired China Mobile SIM that will work just fine.

Within a few seconds of selecting our network, you will receive a "welcome" text message with additional instruction for provisioning your phone into the network. All provisioning steps will be through text messaging or IVR.

How will you know my phone number?

You will tell us in a text message or through an IVR as part of the provisioning process. You will receive detailed instructions in a text message when your phone first arrives in the network. A phone number number is only required, though, to receive calls. You don't need a number to place calls, on the playa or to the outside world.

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 non-AT&T SIM card should work, even an expired prepaid one. Most phones won't even try to talk to the network without one.
If your SIM won't work, drop by the camp for an expired China Mobile SIM.

Text Messaging

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

Yes, if those people are registered in the network. 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?


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

People can reply to the texts you send, but cannot text you spontaneously. Also, your phone number, as seen by the outside world, will be different from your normal number and may be different for every text you send.

Speech Calls

Will I be able to call people on the Playa?

Yes, 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 outside world?

Yes, but again, your call will be limited to just a few minutes. BTW: A phone that is in BRC but registered on the Commnet commercial network is effectively in the default world.

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

People can return calls if you call them first, but they cannot call you spontaneously. Inbound calls from the default world may go directly to voice mail with an SMS notification. Also, your phone number, as seen by the outside world, will be different from your normal number and may be different for every call you make.

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. For what it's worth, our network is configured to advertise in its system information messages that it does not support emergency calls, but that doesn't stop some phones from trying.

Will I be able to use The Twitter, The Facebook, The Go Ogle, The Youtube?
No. Well, actually, you might be able to use The Twitter, but not through your normal account. We're not sure yet.

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, 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 "611".


The real nitty-gritty is on the Network page.

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-3428 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?

We are using multiple Range Networks Model 5150-series GSM/SIP access points. These units are produced commercially and specifically built to run OpenBTS. We thank Range Networks for use of this equipment.

Where is you equipment?

See the Network page.

What frequencies are you using?

We are operating in the DCS-1800 band. More details on spectrum planning will follow when our license actually issues and spectrum coordination is complete.

What is your software?

The GSM radio access network part is OpenBTS. The core network part is Yate. You can download the public release version the code and build a very similar network for yourself if you want. The frameworks and servers for our interactive text and speech applications are being provided by Tropo.

How do you route calls to and from the default world?

See the Network page.

If I have my own OpenBTS system, can I run my own nanocell?

Maybe. Contact david at to coordinate that.