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On the Playa

On the Playa

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There were a lot more problems than hoped for in getting good connectivity for the phone, and it didn't work the first two days, however it went up on Mercury on Tuesday night and moved to the Esplanade on Wednesday.

In spite of the troubles, watching people use the phone was a tremendous experience. About 3,000 minutes of calls were made, all over the world, though California was the biggest target. (See Maps)

In some ways it was best when people saw the phone without knowing or believing it was real. When it became clear it was real and working, a line would form at it as might be expected. (The phone in Gerlach, to which burners have to take a bus, often gets an hour-long line.)

First Calls

One of the most amusing experience came shortly after I moved the phone to the Esplanade. At about 1 AM, a woman walked by and saw the phone. She was amused, and when she got a dial tone, dialed her mother's number in New York to see what the joke was. At 4 in the morning, her mother's sleepy voice answered the phone. She cried out "Whaa!" and slammed the phone down. She did not want to explain to her mother that she had woken her up because she didn't think the phone she was using was real.

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Shortly after, a man came up and made a call. When he heard a real voice on the other end, he literally fell down, pulling the phone over. I was able to grab it -- it wasn't secured fully having just been moved -- and quickly pounded in some stakes to keep it stable.

Another couple came up and this time deliberately woke their daughter in Edmonton, Alberta. The man and woman were dressed in a flamboyant burner style, with devil horns and other costumes, and I wondered if the young daughter had any impression of how her annoying parents looked at the time, and the incredible environment they were calling from.

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Not far down the street was the "Talk to God" phone which made people believe even less in the reality of it. Especially when combined with the "Pacific Hell" lighted logo I placed on it, some wondered if it was a "Talk to Satan" phone. People were even more disbelieving when told they could call anywhere in the world for free. Many are unaware of just how cheap long distance has become, and so this is something they wouldn't expect to see even in the connected world, let alone by satellite.

A large number of callers would give yelps of joy when they heard the voices of loved ones; some were even moved to tears to hear from those they had not seen in a while. Sometimes this would happen simply by hearing the answering machine recording of a loved one.

I don't know the number!

A considerable number of folks invited to use the phone said they didn't know the phone numbers of any of their friends. Today, many people keep all numbers in their cell phone's address book, and never dial the numbers directly. Many of them called their own voice mails since they knew at least that number, and often exclaimed in amazement at just that. (Alas, many of the voice mails they left themselves will have been somewhat garbled due to the internet traffic issues.)

(Some people, remarkably, were carrying their cell phones in spite of it being a 2 hour drive to the nearest cell tower.)

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It was also rewarding to meet people who had emergency problems. A number of people called folks in Florida after word spread of the hurricanes there. Some folks called hospitals where burners who had been injured on the playa had been taken.

Mobile Phone

The calls were often emotional but often had a common thread of love and missing those dear. The phone was too close to the front of the Embassy camp where live bands were playing, so we needed to move it. We came along, unstaked it, and carried it while a woman was in the middle of a conversation, to much amusement for those in line. "It's a mobile phone," I explained.

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When it was working, word did get around. During a brief visit to Playa Info, two people in a row asked where the phone was they had heard about, and I am told that was a common question.

Even with the intermittent quality, it was clear people were grateful. I did not ask anything in return, but often got offers of tasty and intoxicating substances. It occured to me that were I greedy, I could have come to the playa with just the phone, and overjoyed callers would have provided my camp with water, food and other supplies that we needed. (Of course it was actually the reverse -- our camp brought too much as usual, and routinely invited strangers passing on the street to come in and dine with us.)

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Some were highly curious about how it worked. Some figured right away it must be satellite. To many, I explained that it used "playa waves" or bounced signals off planets in the vault of heaven and they accepted it. (Indeed, their voice was sailing through the vault of heaven, but just to a satellite.)

More Photos

JC Dill, who provided some assistance on the phone, also took some nice photos of users with her big fat f/2.8 lens. They are here.


The phone had an incoming number (in the 213 area code) which was on the front and advertised on the ePlaya bulletin board. (The new number is in the 347 area code and the number spells FIRE-BY-FANS.)

Many people called it, though I am sure they got frustrated during the early days when it wasn't working, or during other periods of heavy use or downtime. Nonetheless many called, and I answered a few, and watched others answer. The phone had a traditional physical bell, also quite out of place in today's world. Some callers were folks annoyed they couldn't make it out. Some folks calling on Sunday and Monday were those who had had to leave early, calling back for a taste of the place they had left.


The bad news was that this year was one of both heavy use and great unreliability in the internet connection. Many things were going wrong with the networks, keeping the hard working network admins (Ralf, Clif and John) busy for much of the event. The dish eventually failed, and Tachyon, the satellite company, had to ship replacement parts mid-event.

Sometimes the wireless network would be down. Sometimes the DHCP server would not provide addresses to connecting systems. Sometimes these would work but the outside connection would not. (To help, we eventualy gave the phone an external static IP address.)

The result of this was that the phone worked only some of the time, and often when it did work you could hear the other party fine but they had various degrees of trouble hearing you. Late at night, when network congestion was low, people had the best calls. During the day, conversations were more one-way with lots of repetition needed.

Next Time

We'll do more tests to assure better quality. Due to the problems in getting the network working at all, there wasn't time to learn how to do bandwidth shaping to give priority to the voice packets when it was working.

The small wireless bridge I bought was not of the best quality and while it was low power, we will probably use something else. Also, we will put a better antenna on it. I had a better antenna, and had ordered connectors to hook it up, but an unreliable supplier named wisp-router did not ship when promised so they did not make it to the playa.

With more reliability and more range, we might move the phone around a bit more next year, letting it sit on the Esplanade, in Center Camp and even on the open playa. The more out of place the better.