Phones at Burning Man: Can you hear me now?

Organizers and participants bemoan the arrival of cell phones into their desert utopia, but others say the mobile communication can be helpful and discreet.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
6 min read

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev.--Burning Man is not just an alternative culture event; it's increasingly a commercial cellular opportunity, and that has purists fuming.

For one week, participants leave behind their work and more mundane matters, and immerse themselves in an alternate reality, recharging their creative energy and drawing inspiration from the surreal atmosphere.

The OpenBTS Project's 70-foot tower and three antennas, a Mexican-made knockoff of a Rohn 25 model. Dave Simon

The remote location, 140 miles from the nearest city (Reno) in the desert of northern Nevada, makes it easy to escape. Meanwhile, banning commerce (apart from ice and coffee from the organizers) is designed to wean people off capitalism in favor of a more idealistic gift and barter society.

Now, 23 years after the first man was burned, the real world seems to be intruding on the event in the form of the first commercial cellular coverage.

On August 20, Commnet Wireless installed a temporary cellular tower on private land right near the Burning Man site at a hot springs called Frog Pond, Mark Hansen, vice president of network operations at the wholesale wireless carrier, said on Thursday. The tower, sitting on a trailer and powered by solar and wind, transmits via satellite to the mobile-phone network, he said.

The company has a permanent cell tower above Empire, Nevada, about 15 miles from Burning Man, he said. But the company was curious to find out what kind of demand there was at the event and even more so, wanted to test out technology that could be used to serve remote communities, such as the Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, he said.

There were technical challenges, and the service could offer only voice, not data, over the satellite connection, according to Hansen. People in the area made and received about 300,000 calls during the event, he said. Commnet had expected demand to be two to three times that, he added.

Commnet plans to remove the mobile tower next week and likely won't be back at Burning Man next year.

"Right now, I think we're going to lose money" as a result of the cost of deployment far exceeding the amount made from roaming charges, he said. "If we can't make money, we won't be back."

The company had approached the Burning Man organization about the project beforehand and was told that the event wasn't interested in it being there, Hansen said.

The electronics for the OpenBTS Project's cellular tower are housed in three enclosed cases to protect against damage from dust storms. Dave Simon

"The culture is one where they want people to be able to get away from their phones, and we can understand that," he said.

Meanwhile, Commnet worked with a Burning Man theme camp called Papa Legba, which ran a free limited voice and text service as part of an open-source cellular network called the OpenBTS Project, to make sure that the two services didn't interfere with each other.

While most rural communities would welcome the arrival of such service, many residents of Burning Man weren't pleased.

"Maybe I'm an old fart, but it will be very sad to see vast numbers removing themselves from the experience that is Burning Man," wrote "DoctorIknow" on the ePlaya discussion board. ("Playa" is what participants call the ancient lake bed known as the Black Rock Desert where the event is located.) "And to hear them everywhere I go, shouting into phones...I'd rather sleep next to a generator."

Another posting on the board was short and sweet: "Hang up and participate."

One Burning Man volunteer said she was "bummed out" after seeing someone check his iPhone while riding on an art car. Cell service is going to "change the culture" of the event, she complained.

Asked to comment on the matter at a news conference at the event last week, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey predicted that participants would police themselves to keep cell phone use in check.

"You can't f**k in the road, you can't sh*t in the road, and you can't use your cell phone in the road," he said with blatant disgust. "It's a private function. Do it in your tent!"

Not all of the estimated 42,000 attendees at this year's event were opposed to cell phone use.

While the service was spotty and unreliable, my camp was able to ask late-arriving friends via text message to bring more supplies and to receive a phone call from a friend to inform us that she wasn't going to be able to make it to the event, after all.

It was odd to hear the phone ring as we sat in our camp, but it was also strange having two fans blowing on us and refilling canteens from a cold-water cooler--luxuries that resulted from being on the electrical grid near Center Camp.

I didn't see anyone checking their phone messages as we waited several hours for a dust storm to subside so the Man could be burned on Saturday night. But I did see people staring down intently at their iPhones as they sipped their coffee in the Center Camp cafe during the day.

For some, the arrival of cellular service was inevitable.

"The theme (of Burning Man) is evolution, adaption," said John Gilmore, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil libertarian and open-source advocate. "Get used to it."

OpenBTS Project supporter John Gilmore and co-founders Harvind Samra and David Burgess at the Papa Legba camp. Dave Simon

Gilmore was hanging out at the Papa Legba camp, where a 70-foot tower was beaming text messages and voice calls over a small GSM cellular network run by the OpenBTS Project.

The service, which was operational only about half of the time, allowed participants to send text messages and make 30-second phone calls to others at the event. Users also, theoretically, could receive them from people in the outside world via Skype and Google Talk through the iNum service, said David Burgess, an engineering consultant and a co-founder of the OpenBTS Project.

"We're constantly fighting heat and dust and infrastructure that is not quite there," he said.

This is the message the OpenBTS Project sent to cell phones at Burning Man inviting them to use the free service. Dave Simon

The group had tested limited voice service at Burning Man a year ago. "Our long-term goal was to provide a reference design for a type of cellular technology that is easy to deploy in remote areas and is inexpensive to operate," Burgess said.

Instead of having to get an extended contract with a telecommunications carrier for access to a mobile switching center, OpenBTS paid a small deposit for an account with Link2VoIP, which provides a gateway between the Black Rock City Internet backbone and the North American POTS (plain-old telephone system), according to Burgess.

Asked how much use the OpenBTS network was getting at Burning Man, OpenBTS co-founder Harvind Samra said that every 10 minutes or so a phone call was made and that there were 44 text messages pending in the queue at the time.

With Gilmore's help, OpenBTS was able to add the SMS capability to the service this year.

"I brought the Internet (via satellite) out here in 1999 and 2000, and initially, the reaction was terrible," Gilmore said. "They didn't want people geeking out in their tents."

Not only does the Burning Man organization use the Internet for many of its functions--such as ticketing, dissemination of emergency and critical information, and hosting a weather Webcam in nearby Gerlach--but having Internet service enables media outlets to e-mail their stories to printers for distribution in newspapers at the event and to publish stories directly to the Web, he said.

"There is a culture of haves and have-nots," said Gilmore, obviously relishing the debate. "Burning Man staffers with pagers and radios can talk with friends across the playa. The rest of us can't, and I wanted to do some equalizing there; to make it so we can all communicate on the playa."

Burning Man has survived the premature burning of the Man (2007), the anticlimactic existential crisis fostered by renegade activists calling themselves "Borg 2" (2005), and now angst generated by the sounds of cell phones ringing on the playa.

What could be next?

"I don't care either way about having cell phone service available. I'd keep my phone off and hidden, regardless," dj_john69 wrote on the ePlaya discussion board. "Now, if and when a Starbucks shows up to Empire or Gerlach, that's where I flip out."