CoLTE: Powering Small-scale Community LTE Networks

About Solution

The Community LTE (CoLTE) Project develops a high-speed, locally-owned, LTE network-in-a-box. CoLTE makes it possible for anyone, not just expert operators, to deploy, manage, and administer their own LTE network. CoLTE provides simple web-based tools for management and configuration operations, similar to the way most users configure WiFi routers today. Where web-based tools are not possible (e.g. choosing a specific frequency or buying and configuring SIM cards), CoLTE provides detailed and simplified user-guides. Finally, in contrast to existing cloud-based LTE models that charge subscription fees per-user, CoLTE is a fully free and open source project.


Why LTE?

          There exist many community networking projects that use WiFi. CoLTE specifically uses the long-term evolution (LTE) cellular standard instead, for several reasons. These include increased range, simplicity of administration, and better device support. First and foremost, LTE frequencies dramatically out-perform WiFi with respect to penetration and coverage: whereas standard WiFi 802.11n access points reach approximately 50 feet, a single 1-watt LTE base station can cover an area of up to two miles in radius! This is a crucial advantage, especially given that most disconnected areas are rural, with a lower-than-average population density. Increased range also results in a system that is easier to administer and manage, since a single LTE base station can cover an area that would previously have required a large number (50-100, depending on density) of WiFi access points. Finally, because the LTE protocol is designed for cellular access, it comes with a wide range of advantages over WiFi, such as asymmetric power consumption (i.e. the tower uses more power than the handset) and a scheduler designed to support a high number of connected devices simultaneously. Additionally, we note that while LTE requires users to own a compatible smartphone, this requirement is no longer as infeasible as it once may have seemed: a 2017 study of a remote Indonesian village found that upwards of 30% of phones in the area supported LTE!


Current Project Status

In Summer 2018, we launched our first pilot CoLTE network in a remote village in Papua, in collaboration with Airwaves Missions. This network was very well-received in the community, is sustainably profitable, and currently supports a few dozens of users, with a large waiting list as we gradually expand coverage. In February 2019, we are launching our second pilot network in Oaxaca, Mexico, in collaboration with Rhizomatica.


Current Work:

The CoLTE team is simultaneously working on two thrusts. First, we currently working on integrating CoLTE with existing network management and billing platforms (e.g. Sonar and Powercode). This work will enable already-existing WISPs to seamlessly expand their networks to include individual CoLTE access points alongside their other gear (e.g. fixed-wireless routers or WiFi APs). With this work, CoLTE will be a complementary addition to other existing community network infrastructure, as opposed to an alternative or replacement.


Second, we are improving and expanding the suite of additional local services offered by CoLTE. These services, which operate concurrently with the LTE stack, can be zero-rated and will improve performance, reduce backhaul costs, and support local community initiatives and needs. The services that ship with CoLTE currently include locally-hosted versions of Wikipedia, RocketChat, and OpenStreetMaps, but we are planning to expand these services to include voice and text (SMS/MMS), Kahn Academy (for serving localized and offline educational content), and a Cultural Content Repository to support collection, sharing, and preservation of cultural content such as endangered languages.

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