In six weeks from bare hardware to receiving BCCHs

After six weeks of full-time hacking, with the help of a few friends, we have made it to receiving actual BCCH data from a GSM cell.

So what does this mean? As I have indicated publicly at the 26C3 conference: Now, that we have managed to create a working GSM network-side implementation (OpenBSC) during the last year, we will proceed to do the same with the phone side.

Initially we spent quite a bit of thinking on building our own custom hardware. But while planning for the first prototype, we realized that it would simply distract us too much from what we actually wanted to do. We don't want to take care of component sourcing, prototype generations, quality assurance in production, production testing, etc. -- All we want is to write a Free Software GSM protocol implementation for a phone.

Unfortunately (as usually in the industry), the silicon and device makers do not publish sufficient documentation about their devices to enable third-party developers to go ahead and write their own software: The never ending problem of Free Software in many areas beyond more-or-less standardized hardware like in the PC industry.

So, if you want to write Free Software for such a device, you have two options:

  • Reverse engineering the existing hardware and writing your code based on that information
  • Building your own hardware and then writing the software you wanted to write.

I've been involved in both approaches multiple times while looking only at the application processor (the PDA side) of mobile phones: OpenEZX and gnufiish are two more or less abandoned projects aimed at reverse engineering. Openmoko was the project that had to build its own hardware as a dependency to be fulfilled before writing software.

If you're not a company and don't want to sell anything, the reverse engineering approach looks more promising. You can piggy-back on existing hardware, don't need to take care of sourcing/production/certification/shipping and other tedious bits.

If you are a company and want to generate revenue, then of course you want to build the hardware and ship it, as it is what you derive your profits from.

So, just to be clear on this: Neither OpenEZX, nor gnufiish nor Openmoko were ever about writing Free Software for the GSM baseband processor, i.e. the beast that exchanges messages with the actual GSM operator network. But this is what we're working on right now.

It's about time, don't you agree? after 19 years of only proprietary software on the baseband chips in billions of phones, it is more than time for bringing the shining light of Freedom into this area of computing.

To me personally, it is the holy grail of Free Software: Driving it beyond the PC, beyond operating systems and application programs. Driving it into the billions of embedded devices where everyone is stuck with proprietary software without an alternative. Everybody takes it for granted to run megabytes of proprietary object code, without any memory protection, attached to an insecure public network (GSM). Who would do that with his PC on the Internet, without a packet filter, application level gateways and a constant flow of security updates of the software? Yet billions of people do that with their phones all the time.

I hope with our work there will be a time where the people who paid for their phones will be able to actually own and control what it does. If I have paid for it, I determine what software it runs and when it send which message or doesn't.

Oh, getting back to what our work: It will be published as soon as it is sufficiently stable and fit for public consumption. You won't be able to make phone calls yet, but we'll get there at some later point this year.