I remember interviewing Glenn Edens when he was the head of Sun Labs, the research arm of Sun Microsystems. He has since moved on to a very interesting startup, Range Networks, that appeared on stage at the DEMO Fall 2010 conference this week in Santa Clara, Calif. Edens says Range Networks wants to get cell phones in the hands of everybody in the world and hopes its technology can lead to service fees that are dramatically lower than what we see today. Today, cell phone service has been stuck at around $35 a month; Edens believes that can be lowered to $2 or $3 a month.

By using internet infrastructure to transmit calls, Edens believes you can cut out a lot of the electronics costs for GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) calls. That should enable Range Networks to reach people in remote areas, such as coal miners in China or scientists in Antartica.

At the core of these stations are chips that use software-defined radio (SDR), a technology that allows a processor to deal with many different kinds of wireless signals on the fly. SDR chips have long been a mirage, but Range Networks says it has designed them so that they can deliver lower-cost and lower-power hardware to carriers. This makes the GSM base station as easy to install as a Wi-Fi access point.

The base stations operate on just 50 watts of power, compared to 3,500 watts for typical base stations. Each base station now uses so little power that it can operate on renewable energy sources such as solar in remote locations. And while typical GSM base stations can cost $100,000, Edens says Range Networks could cost $10,000, in part because of they make use of open-source OpenBTS GSM software, which transform voice calls into low-cost Internet data transmissions. Those lower costs are what make $2-a-month cell-phone service not just possible but profitable.

Customers include T-Mobile, Orange, Telefonica SA, Telecom Niue, Kasi Mobile, MobMe, 4Dst, Research In Motion, Qualcomm, L3 Communications, SRI, BBN, BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, DARPA, SAIC, Avionica, GATR, Rockwell Collins, Raytheon, BTS, Lincoln Labs, Sandia National Laboratory, MIT, UC Berkeley, TU Berlin, Mexico Federal Police, U.S. State Department, NSA, Naval Post Graduate School and the Fraunhofer Institute. The company is self-funded with about $1.2 million in capital from the founders.

Check out our video interview with Edens.


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