If you’re a true telecoms geek (and lets face it, if you’re reading MIR, you’re well on your way) then you’ve thought, nay dreamed, about having your own private mobile network. Even for the non-techies amongst us (I’ve been told there are some), the allure of not having to pay any money to the Vodafones and T-Mobiles of this world, and to be in control of your own destiny (at least as far as signal strength is concerned) is very appealing. Can new technology from Teleware make that a reality? Read on for our in-depth review.
You probably remember the PMN from its recent round-trip to the Maldives, courtesy of Ewan. Were it not for it spending practically all of the holiday stuck in customs, I’m sure he would have given it a decent going over, but alas it was not to be. When he got back and offered to let me give it an in-depth review on his behalf, the 5 hours of driving to go and pick it up seemed worth it to get hold of something that could easily be described as Ã¢â‚¬Ëœevery telephony geeks wet dream’.
So before we get stuck in, lets talk about what it means to be a Mobile Network Operator (MNO). Note, that we’re not talking about about an MVNO here.. its Virtual counterpart where you Ã¢â‚¬Ëœborrow’ another networks infrastructure and white label it as your own. In that scenario there’s another wizard behind the curtain and, believe me, his pockets are filling with gold a lot faster than yours. No, I’m talking a real bonafide Ã¢â‚¬Å“get-yer-masts-outÃ¢â‚¬Â MNO.
The wealth of technology that powers your favourite operator, assuming you have one, is not for the faint of heart (or the light of wallet). Back in the good Ã¢â‚¬Ëœol days of GSM your typical telecoms dictionary, describing the sea of acronyms and components that make up such a network, was Ã¢â‚¬Ëœonly’ the size of a small paperback book. With the advent of EDGE, CDMA, 3G/UMTS and other technologies, all substantially different from those used in a typical wireline provider like BT (but having to interoperate all the same) the mobile telecoms world is now a very complicated beast indeed. These days, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single book that describes it all, and those that you do find tend to be about as portable as a breeze block. Whilst the worthy pursuit of becoming a telecoms guru has always been reserved for those with a penchant for masochism, they now also require a sturdy desk.
The miniaturisation of technologies that enabled us to go from the old brick-sized Ã¢â‚¬Å“car phoneÃ¢â‚¬Â (remember those?) to the likes of the tiny Nokia 6300 didn’t happen over on the infrastructure side of the mobile industry until fairly recently. Pico- and Femto-cells were the results of this, technologies which Dan Lane is hoping to run an in-depth feature on shortly.
Now you’re probably under the impression that those small Pico-cell boxes are a one box solution; that all you need to have in your office, in order to increase your mobile phone reception, is a little box on the wall. Unfortunately, they’re only part of the puzzle – the Pico-cell reduces the cell towers that we all know and love down to a small paperback-sized unit, but a lot of the heavy lifting (radio management, signaling, telecom gateways etc.) has to be performed elsewhere. At a bare minimum, to get just the regular services that you’re used to like SMS and the ability to call people, you’ll be needing a plethora of bizarre sounding acronyms: a BSS, BTS, BSC, an MSC, an SMSC, maybe a GSN, and your trusty Pico-cell, as well as an MGC and MG for access to the regular telephone network. It’s as complicated as it sounds, and whilst I won’t bore you with what those mean specifically, I will say that historically, each one usually comes in the form of a big piece of hardware that you bolt into one of several racks, and costs a small fortune. The Pico-cell manufacturers recognised this early on, and took steps to create entirely software-based versions of each of these components, allowing them to be run on commodity server hardware but the fact remains that behind-the-scenes of your “enter a number and press the green button” experience there lies a dizzying number of components.
That Teleware has managed to shoe-horn all of the above (and more) into a small hamper-sized suitcase in the form of the PMN, is no small feat. Tipping the scales at 21kg, the PMN is more Ã¢â‚¬Å“luggableÃ¢â‚¬Â than portable, but we’ll forgive them as there really is a lot of hardware inside, as well as a fairly meaty battery pack.
The PMN is a quite a sight to behold, both my other half and her parents mentioned that it looked like something out of a Bond movie. If that’s not worth the price of admission (around £20k), I don’t know what is. The outside of the box is fairly minimalist, with two small mobile antennae near to the handle, a power port and switch, and a connector for the break-out box on the side which we’ll cover in a moment. On opening the box, the top half is fitted with foam, cut to hold the included 4x JCB Toughphone’s, the break-out box itself, and various cables, with the lower portion of the unit containing the heart of the PMN (which, for the record, is marked as containing “No User Servicable Parts Inside”).
So how complicated is it to operate? On the laminated instructions that accompanied the PMN, entitled Ã¢â‚¬Å“Rapid Deployment UnitÃ¢â‚¬Â (they really know how to get a techies heart racing) it all boils down to this: flip the power switch, and wait 5 minutes. It’s really that simple.
After 5 minutes, the PMN will emit the faintest beep I’ve ever (not) heard in my life, and there’s a good reason for this – the speaker is buried in the depths of the unit, surrounded by some very thick plastic. Whoever wrote the manual was either super-human, or had the lid off at the time. But no matter, you’ll know when it’s working, because you’ll be giggling like a school boy when you realise that all four of the JCB Toughphone’s just logged onto your very own Private Mobile Network.
For the avoidance of doubt, this isn’t VoIP-over-WiFi, DECT or anything like that. This is a proper GSM Mobile Operator Network, using all the relevant standards, and even supports EDGE data. That also means that the included JCB Toughphones are just regular mobile handsets, and you can even use your own handsets which I’ll come onto shortly. You do need a license to use the radio frequencies that the PMN operates on, but don’t let that put you off – Teleware already handled that, so the device is legal to use in the UK. For other countries, Teleware do state that you may need a license in that country (probably a good thing it got held up in the Maldives customs then!) but I’m sure if you asked them nicely they’d point you in the right direction.
So what can you do with the PMN? Each of the handsets has an assigned phone number 8041-8044, and between them you can call, conference and SMS and it all just works. It is quite simply stunning that Teleware have managed to reduce all of the complexity I mentioned, down to a single power switch. And in fact, even slightly more complex configurations like connecting the PMN to the regular telephone network, or even a VoIP network, is very, very easy.
The web interface on the RDU allows you to do various things, including call routing and adding additional SIM cards to the system. I’m sure I broke all sorts of Terms & Conditions, but I did manage to get the RDU to let my T-Mobile USIM roam onto it as well. That was a great day, because T-Mobile’s coverage where I live is shockingly bad, and to see my iPhone automatically roam onto a decent mobile network (my own) as soon as I get home was something I would pay real money for.
Now, being able to call between yourselves is all well and good, but I’d quickly get bored if I could only call four people who were within the devices stated 350m range. So we obviously want to be able to dial regular phone numbers from the handsets. To do this, we simply connect the metallic break-out box (which seems to have been designed by someone who spent a lot of time on a submarine) via an impressively dense connector (which seems to have been designed by someone who works on fighter jets) to the PMN. The break-out box adds 4x FXO ports (mapped to each handset), a VoIP LAN port, and Management LAN port to the unit. The FXO ports, along with the included cables, allow you to connect the PMN directly to up to 4x analogue phone lines (you can literally plug them straight into your BT line at home). Once you’ve done that, you can immediately dial your gran and tell her that you’re calling from your very own mobile network (not that she’ll understand) – and best of all, you’ll only be paying BT’s far more reasonable rates for the call!
As the name suggested earlier, the PMN RDU (to give it its true title) was obviously designed for rapid deployment, and so the inclusion of VoIP makes a certain amount of sense – it’s unlikely that there’ll be 4x BT sockets ready and waiting in the places where the PMN is deployed. There’s no configuration needed on the PMN to enable VoIP, as it automatically sends all outbound calls both to the FXO ports and to a preset IP address accessible on the VoIP LAN port. All you have to do is to have something listening at the other end with that address, such as an Asterisk® or FreeSWITCHÃ¢â€žÂ¢ soft-switch running on a laptop, or a VoIP gateway from the likes of Nokia et al., and you’ll be able to route your calls however you wish (which could be an internal phone network, connection to a VoIP provider over WiFi/LAN/Satellite connection etc.) – the flexibility offered by this is enormous, and I’m glad they took the time to include it.
So how have Teleware managed to squeeze all this technology into one box? Well, I figured the PMN was working just fine and wasn’t in need of any kind of “User Service” and I was completely within my rights to crack it open. So I have it on very good authority that the innards contain a Picocell from ip.access, a VoIP gateway from Nokia, a battery, and a small (but fairly powerful) embedded PC. The whole system is solid-state, with no moving parts save for a couple of fans which don’t really vent anywhere as I could see. This lack of ventilation made me somewhat nervous, as a couple of times the unit kept saying it was getting a little warm – and I couldn’t help but think that, were I in a tropical jungle, and not in fact in a living room, we might have some problems. That aside, there’s not too many power sockets scattered through the jungle, but fear not intrepid explorers as the internal battery in the RDU will power the whole unit for about 6 hours, and there’s even a a small cable sticking out of the unit into which you can plug the JCB Toughphones to charge them up. Rather smartly, the PMN will even SMS all the phones to let you know when the juice is running low. So you can rush back and.. plug it in?
Of course, this is all useless if the RDU doesn’t work Ã¢â‚¬Å“in the fieldÃ¢â‚¬Â (and amusingly, you could actually use it in a field if you so wished). Whilst the RDU performed admirably during my indoor tests, when I ventured outside armed with my trusty JCB Toughphone, I was somewhat surprised to find the signal dropped off when I got to the end of the drive-way. Now this would be all well and good, were that I lived in a mansion with a 2 mile-long drive from gate to house. Alas, I do not (yet). So I was a little puzzled by this, and after scouring the configuration, and repeated (un-answered) requests to Teleware support to try and resolve it, I was left feeling a little cheated. I’m going to assume that it has at some point managed to achieve the intended 350m range, because the data-sheet never lies, right?
The other interesting component is the embedded PC, not because of the hardware per se but because of the sheer amount of software that it’s actually running. It’s no surprise that it gets a little warm in there on occasion, as the 600mhz CPU tries to keep up with running not just Windows Server 2003, SQL Server, and a whole bunch of Teleware software, but also Linux and a whole bunch of ip.access software.. simultaneously.
It seems like there are two very different vendors at work here – ip.access have been around since 1999, and supply the Picocell used in the RDU alongside their Linux-based BSC/BTS software to make it all work. As I mentioned earlier, there are more components to this than just the BSC/BTS though, and Teleware were left to their own devices to implement the MSC, SMSC and administration interface. Surprisingly (and for reasons unknown), Teleware chose to write all their software for Windows, adding an enormous (and unnecessary, in my opinion) layer of complexity because the poor 600mhz PC running inside the PMN now has to run not only Windows and SQL Server, but a virtual machine running Linux as well, courtesy of VMware. It’s actually a wonder that the machine a) works at all between reboots and b) manages to boot up in even 5 minutes, and sheds some light on the included instructions recommending that you shut down the system when you’re not making calls to prevent data corruption.
Sorry? Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the whole point was that you could roam around with your JCB Toughphone, without lugging the PMN behind you. If you have to go back to it to turn it on when you want to make a call, it seems a little pointless, and leads me to think that this is more of a prototype to see if the market is interested, than a full-fledged and stream-lined product at this point.
This leads me to question who the PMN is aimed at. As a technology demonstration, well done boys – it works as advertised and, niggles aside, is a very impressive piece of engineering considering what’s involved. But who will buy it? The underlying technology is perfectly suited to an office environment where you want your employees to roam onto your private network for cost-savings, security and such-like, and this is in fact what the various PMN solutions that Teleware offer aim for, but putting all of that into a portable form factor seems to me like a solution in search of a problem.
One of the industries Teleware seem to be aiming the RDU at are the emergency services, to enable them to communicate during a crisis (apparently we might turn off the regular mobile networks in such an event, and other such scare stories). Frankly, in a crisis situation the limited range of the device would just add confusion and frustration, and I certainly wouldn’t put my faith in this device as it stands until it’s made a lot simpler and more robust on the software side. That being said, all of these are problems that can be solved fairly easily, and in software and I hope that Teleware take the points in this article on board and turn this into a really solid product, as they obviously have the background and technical savvy in this space. It’s an impressive piece of kit, very flexible and the underlying technology would work great in an office environment. I’d whole-heartedly recommend Teleware if you’re looking to deploy Femto- or Pico-cell technology, and if I had a spare £20k I’d definitely buy an RDU for personal use, even if it were just to have one more piece of Bond-esque gadgetry at home.
– Jay Fenton
The Teleware PMN really is every telecom geeks wet dream, and despite concerns about the long-term reliability of the RDU itself, as a demonstration of what Teleware can achieve, they really can deliver on the promise of having your very own Private Mobile Network.
For more pictures of the PMN RDU, visit the Flickr stream.
- It does what it says on the tin. Your very own (portable) Private Mobile Network.
- Impressive concentration of technology.
- Very simple to operate.
- Not convinced that it can cool itself effectively.
- Range might be an issue.
- Complex software implementation, may not be reliable.