Funding the Osmocom Cellular project

Funding the Osmocom Cellular project

My friend and business partner has recently blogged about funding of the Osmocom Cellular Infrastructure Projects and while I want to write about the history of sysmocom s.f.m.c. GmbH I will focus on getting contributions (or as a replacement monetary support) for the project.

First of all I think the existence of Osmocom and Osmocom Cellular made a significant difference. It is used to provide connectivity to those previously ignored (Thank you everyone involved with Rhizomatica!) and we enabled mobile communication security research. This ranges from breaking ciphering, hijacking calls, easily fuzzing phones, the whole set of GSM MAP/CAP hacks which lead to real improvement of security and privacy for end users. We took the black out of the mobile black box and want to continue to do it.

My big question is how do we sustain such development (beyond personal sacrifice)? How do we get significant contributions to remove more black boxes and extend to 4G and beyond? If getting contributions is difficult the second best thing seems to be money. This allows to pay and hire new developers that want to spend their work hours on improving Free Software. So where can these contributions come from?

The research/security community

While OsmocomBB and OpenBSC opened up the door for university and corporate researchers to explore networks, offer penetration tests, the project didn’t get much in return though. Part of the problem seems that for research a sloppy modification is enough and when the researcher has published his paper, he is too ashamed to release the hack and moves on.

Universities and Students

Universities used to buy full GSM BTS but recently seem more interested in SDR platforms. While a SDR is not a BTS the promise of running a GSM and LTE network with the same universal radio peripheral is tempting. Fewer BTS sold means less funding for OpenBSC/osmo-bts but this could be easily compensated by increased contributions to osmo-bts and osmo-trx by students and university staff. For some reason this is not happening and I think there are plenty things to improve!

Vendors using OpenBSC and osmo-bts

In general I would expect that BTS vendors that integrate our software with their hardware would have an interest in the longevity of the project and either buy software support or have their staff maintain and contribute fixes. Sadly it seems that with the current state of the industry not contributing is seen as a commercial advantage…

Research grants

The first time I heard of funding of a Free Software project receiving significant funding was when the PyPy project was initiated. Today there are various funds that support Free Software initiatives (NLnet, Mozilla Grants and more) and last year my proposal to NLnet was selected and sysmocom could begin work on 3G support in Osmocom. While this is great, the amount of funding is not enough to keep a company focused on removing blackboxes from mobile communication going for too long. So more and bigger funds are needed.

I tried to get funds from Opentech but they didn’t seem to be interested in projects like replacing proprietary Qualcomm components from modules like the EC20/EC25, or building tools for 2G/3G/4G to allow to educate users on privacy impacts of using cellular technology and to understand how a phone behaves. My first research question would be to explore what really happens when 2G is disabled in a phone and a network tries to force a downgrade. But the proposal would have enabled much more. The proposals were rejected, maybe my proposal was just bad, maybe there is no interest to finance work on cellular technology (besides most data usage seems to be from mobile devices these days). The rejection doesn’t contain feedback so it is hard to tell which of the above is more true.

How can you help?

Maybe there is not enough interest and we should focus our time and energy somewhere else but if you consider our work as important as we do, maybe you can help us? We are looking

  • contributions fix a bug, add a feature, improve existing work and make sure it gets integrated
  • Help us to write project proposals for funds like the Opentech fund…
  • Buy sysmocom hardware?
  • Buy a moral license if your company can/want to do that?
  • Sponsor me (or someone else) and send bitcoin (?)?
  • Propose your idea?
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