Detecting Mobile Phone Transmissions With a Sound Card

Anyone who had a cheap set of computer speakers in the early 2000s has heard it – the rhythmic dit-da-dit-dit of a GSM phone pinging a cell tower once an hour or so. [153armstrong] has a write up on how to capture this on your computer. 

It’s incredibly simple to do – simply plug in a set of headphone to the sound card’s microphone jack, leave a mobile phone nearby, hit record, and wait. The headphone wire acts as an antenna, and when the phone transmits, it induces a current in the wire, which is picked up by the soundcard.

[153armstrong] notes that their setup only seems to pick up signals from 2G phones, likely using GSM. It doesn’t seem to pick up anything from 3G or 4G phones. We’d wager this is due to the difference in the way different cellular technologies transmit – let us know what you think in the comments.

This system is useful as a way to detect a transmitting phone at close range, however due to the limited bandwidth of a computer soundcard, it is in no way capable of actually decoding the transmissions. As far as other experiments go, why not use your soundcard to detect lightning?

Hackaday Prize Entry: A Femtocell Repeater

For a Hackaday Prize entry, [TegwynTwmffat] is building a cell phone signal repeater. This sort of device is commercially available, but the options are either expensive or, as with some units available for $30 on DealExtreme, obviously noncompliant with RF regulations. This project intends to create a cost-effective, hackable device that works properly and conforms to the right regulations.

The core of this system is a LimeSDR transceiver. This is a board we’ve seen before, and it has a few interesting features. Basically, the core of the LimeSDR is a programmable RF transceiver with coverage from 100kHz to 3.8GHz. There’s also on-chip signal processing and USB 3.0 bandwidth to get the signals to and from a computer.

Right now, [TegwynTwmffat]’s focus is getting his LimeSDR up and working and figuring out how to set up a few radio blocks to do what is needed. There’s a great update to the project that showcases Pothos, and so far [Tegwyn] has a full-duplex repeater working. This is great work, and really showcases the capabilities of what software-defined radio can do.

Ask Hackaday: Why Did Modular Smart Phones Fail?

Remember all the talk about modular smart phones? They sounded amazing! instead of upgrading your phone you would just upgrade the parts a bit like a computer but more simplistic. Well it seems modular phones are dead (video, embedded below) even after a lot of major phone manufacturers were jumping on the bandwagon. Even Google got on-board with Google Ara which was subsequently cancelled. LG released the G5 but it didn’t fare too well. The Moto Z from Motorola seemed to suffer from the same lack of interest. The buzz was there when the concept of these modular phones was announced, and people were genuinely exited about the possibilities. What went wrong?

For a start people expect their phones to have everything on board already, whether it be cameras, GPS, WiFi, high-capacity batteries or high-resolution screens. Consumers expect these things to come as standard. Why would they go out and buy a module when other phones on the market already have these things?

Sure you could get some weird and wonderful modules like extra loud speakers or perhaps a projector, but the demand for these items was small. And because these extras are already available as separate accessories not locked down to one device, it was a non starter from the beginning.

When we did our user studies. What we found is that most users don’t care about modularizing the core functions. They expect them all to be there, to always work and to be consistent. — Lead engineer Project Ara

The hackability of these phones would have been interesting to say the least, had they come to the mainstream. It just seems the public want thin sleek aluminum phones that they treat more as a status symbol than anything else. Modular phones have to be more bulky to accommodate the power/data rails and magnets for the modules, so they’ll lose out in pocketability. Still, we hope the idea is revisited in the future and not left on the scrap-heap of obsolescence.

Would you buy a modular smart phone? Even if it is bigger or more expensive? Is that really why they failed?
Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Why Did Modular Smart Phones Fail?”

33C3: Dissecting 3G/4G Phone Modems

[LaForge] and [Holger] have been hacking around on cell phones for quite a while now, and this led to them working on the open cellphone at OpenMoko and developing the OsmocomBB GSM SDR software. Now, they are turning their sights on 3G and 4G modems, mostly because they would like to use them inside their own devices, but would also like to make them accessible to the broader hacker community. In this talk at the 33rd Chaos Communications Congress (33C3), they discuss their progress in making this darkest part of the modern smartphone useful for the rest of us.

This talk isn’t about the plug-and-play usage of a modern cell-phone modem, though, it’s about reprogramming it. They pick a Qualcomm chipset because it has a useful DIAG protocol, and in particular choose the Quectel EC20 modem that’s used in the iPhone5, because it makes the DIAG stream easily available.

Our story begins with a firmware upgrade from the manufacturer. They unzipped the files, and were pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually running Linux, undocumented and without the source code being available. Now, [LaForge] just happens to be the founder of and knows a thing or two about getting code from vendors who use Linux without following the terms and conditions. The legal story is long and convoluted, and still ongoing, but they got a lot of code from Quectel, and it looks like they’re trying to make good.

Qualcomm, on the other hand, makes the Linux kernel source code available, if not documented. (This is the source on which Quectel’s code is based.) [LaForge] took over the task of documenting it, and then developing some tools for it — there is more going on than we can cover. All of the results of their work are available on the wiki site, if you’re getting ready to dig in.

Continue reading “33C3: Dissecting 3G/4G Phone Modems”

Live Counter Revives Old Nokia Phone’s Utility

Old hardware you may have on hand cannot only inspire projects in their own right, but can facilitate the realization of any ideas you have been planning. Using a Nokia N900, [MakerMan] concocted a light-up sign with a live subscriber and view count of his videos.

[MakerMan] milled out the logo used on the sign with his DIY CNC machine — built from rotary bearings and recycled stepper motors off industrial Xerox printers. The meticulous application of a jigsaw, rotary tool, and grinder resulted in a sturdy frame for the sign while a few strips of RGB LEDs imbue it with an inspiring glow. All that was left was to mount the phone in place and tape it for good measure.

Continue reading “Live Counter Revives Old Nokia Phone’s Utility”

Shmoocon 2017: Dig Out Your Old Brick Phone

The 90s were a wonderful time for portable communications devices. Cell phones had mass, real buttons, and thick batteries – everything you want in next year’s flagship phone. Unfortunately, Zach Morris’ phone hasn’t been able to find a tower for the last decade, but that doesn’t mean these phones are dead. This weekend at Shmoocon, [Brandon Creighton] brought these phones back to life. The Motorola DynaTAC lives again.

[Brandon] has a history of building ad-hoc cell phone networks. A few years ago, he was part of Ninja Tel, the group that set up their own cell phone network at DEF CON. That was a GSM network, and brickphones are so much cooler, so for the last few months he’s set his sights on building out a 1G network. All the code is up on GitHub, and the hardware requirements for building a 1G tower are pretty light; you can roll your own 1G network for about $400.

The first step in building a 1G network, properly referred to as an AMPS network, is simply reading the documentation. The entire spec is only 136 pages, it’s simple enough for a single person to wrap their head around, and the concept of a ‘call’ really doesn’t exist. AMPS looks more like a trunking system, and the voice channels are just FM. All of this info was translated into GNU Radio blocks, and [Brandon] could place a call to an old Motorola flip phone.

As far as hardware is concerned, AMPS is pretty lightweight when compared to the capabilities of modern SDR hardware. The live demo setup used an Ettus Research USRP N210, but this is overkill. These phones operate around 824-849 MHz with minimal bandwidth, so a base station could easily be assembled from a single HackRF and an RTL-SDR dongle.

Yes, the phones are old, but there is one great bonus concerning AMPS. Nobody is really using these frequencies anymore in the US. That’s not to say building your own unlicensed 1G tower in the US is legally permissible, but if nobody reports you, you can probably get away with it.

Rotary Cell Phone: Blast from a Past that Never Was

The 1970s called and they want their rotary dial cell phone back.

Looking for all the world like something assembled from the Radio Shack parts department – remember when Radio Shack sold parts? – [Mr_Volt]’s build is a celebration of the look and feel of a hobbyist build from way back when. Looking a little like a homebrew DynaTAC 8000X, the brushed aluminum and 3D-printed ABS case sports an unusual front panel feature – a working rotary dial. Smaller than even the Trimline phone’s rotating finger stop dial and best operated with a stylus, the dial translates rotary action to DTMF tones for the Feather FONA board inside. Far from a one-trick pony, the phone sports memory dialing, SMS messaging, and even an FM receiver. But most impressive and mysterious is the dial mechanism, visible through a window in the wood-grain back. Did [Mr_Volt] fabricate those gears and the governor? We’d love to hear the backstory on that.

This isn’t the first rotary cell phone hybrid we’ve featured, of course. There was this GSM addition to an old rotary phone and this cell phone that lets you slam the receiver down. But for our money a rotary dial cell phone built from the ground up wins the retro cool prize of the bunch.

Continue reading “Rotary Cell Phone: Blast from a Past that Never Was”