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27 June 2016

Lime hits crowdfunding target, a milestone in open source mobile hardware

UK RF specialist Lime Microsystems has raised almost $624,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to bring its LimeSDR software defined radio to market, and will now begin production of the radios, which enable open source, programmable ‘network in a box’ devices for low cost coverage, especially in rural or temporary networks.

LimeSDR is a low cost SDR base station, which can be configured to support different connectivity options, including LTE and WiFi, and can support a full Ubuntu apps platform. It came to prominence in April when it was adopted by the UK’s largest MNO, BT-owned EE, as the basis of a rural coverage program, initially in remote areas of Scotland.

Lime had targeted a sum of $500,000 from the Crowd Supply platform, with a campaign declaring that “you no longer have to be a large corporation to be an innovator in wireless communications”. For IoT developers, and even hobbyist tinkerers, getting access to reprogrammable radio silicon at lower prices encourages innovation, it argued, especially as the SDR is supported by the widely used Snappy Ubuntu Core developer platform through a partnership with Ubuntu creator Canonical.

This highlights an increasingly important and disruptive trend – for open source economics and processes to drive mobile hardware, not just software. Perhaps the most important catalyst for this shift is Facebook’s Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP), which aims to introduce a whole new cost base into operator networks using open source and off-the-shelf technologies. EE is deploying its Scottish system as part of its involvement in TIP.

Ubuntu is also extending its reach into the formerly closed mobile networks market, despite the failure of its own crowdfunding campaign, for a smartphone running its Linux-based mobile OS.

“What makes LimeSDR interesting is that it is using Snappy Ubuntu Core as a sort of app store. Developers can make code available, and end users can easily download and install that code,” wrote Hackaday bloggers, as quoted on the crowdfunding page. And Maarten Ectors, Canonical’s VP of IoT, said in a statement: “As innovators we have worked hard at providing solutions for the future of wireless networks. We believe that with app-enabled networks and using open source commodity hardware and software, the need for proprietary solutions becomes less relevant.”

EE’s high profile endorsement, and now the successful funding, will enable the LimeSDR board to attain scale. It is roughly the size of a Raspberry Pi, with a USB 3.0 interface for connecting to PCs. The heart of the board is an Altera FPGA (field programmable gate array), the Cyclone IV EP4CE40F23. That will cost $239, while for $799, there is a more expansive developer kit and a PCIe version of the board.

Lime is providing its LMS7002M RF transceiver, which allows the board to support a continuous frequency range from 100 Hz to 3.8 GHz, meaning it can be programmed to work with most mainstream wireless technologies including UMTS, GSM, LTE and WiFi, plus sub-1 GHz connections like Sigfox and LoRa, and personal area networks like Bluetooth, ZigBee and Z-Wave. The chip supports 2×2 MIMO.

Much of the design of the board is open source, with the board schematics and layout available under a CC BY 3.0 licence, as well as the USB link and host software, and Altera’s Project Quartus software.

Under the Canonical deal, developers will be able to write and publish applications inside the Snappy app store, where users can download them and then run them on their LimeSDR kits. Of course, developers are able to charge for these applications, with Canonical receiving a cut of that sale, but it seems likely that an ecosystem of free and open source apps will spring up around the LimeSDR.

Lime Micro’s CEO Ebrahim Bushehri said: “We are really excited about this App Store announcement with Snappy Ubuntu. Already we are seeing applications being posted in forums and this development goes a long way to ensure that wireless network and connectivity will be app-enabled”.

The LimeSDR will be supported by Lime’s Myriad-RF community, which it set up as a family of open source hardware and software projects for wireless innovation.