Useful info I learned from playing with GSM

Posted on by Chris Warburton

NOTE: This has been sat in my unfinished folder for a few years. It uses an OpenMoko Freerunner, which I’ve now mostly replaced with a PinePhone.

General Setup

The following assumes serial access to a GSM modem. My phone runs Debian (QtMoko) and starts an OpenSSH server at boot, so I’ve been accessing the modem directly from Bash running on the phone. It’s probably possible to do something similar from a PC via a USB cable or Bluetooth, but I don’t know how since I’ve not needed to. Likewise I don’t know whether serial access can be shared through non-standard Linux setups (e.g. Android). I don’t know or care about proprietary systems (e.g. iOS).

Once you’ve got serial access, write down the relevant device name somewhere handy, since we’ll be using it a lot. In my case this was /dev/ttySAC0.

GSM Basics

GSM modems can be controlled by sending so-called AT commands” over a serial line.

Many programs can communicate over serial; I was happy piping echo commands into socat (Debian package name socat). I also played with the more specialised gsmctl program (Debian package name gsm-utils).

Note: One reason I was happy with echo and socat is that I use shell-mode in Emacs to run my terminals. This integrates well with TRAMP for SSH (tab-completion, opening remote files, etc.) and makes it easy to edit, search, find/replace, etc. my previous commands and their output. I imagine that a normal terminal would be more painful to use, in which case you might want to look for something more than echo ;)

Since we’re using serial, we might as well set the sending and receiving baud rate to a conservative 9600, to rule out a potential source of problems. The command I’ve been piping into is the following:

socat - file:/dev/ttySAC0,crtscts,crnl,ispeed=9600,ospeed=9600

As well as setting the baud rates, this ends each line with a carriage return and newline (AKA “carriage return linefeed”, or CRLF). This is unlike the default Unix/Linux convention of just using newline (AKA linefeed). The - tells socat to read from its standard input.

To avoid spurious errors I’ve been turning the GSM modem off and on before sending commands, and waiting 2 seconds between commands. The general script I’ve been using looks like the following (I call it go), although this /sys path is specific to the OpenMoko FreeRunner, yours will probably differ:

set -e
echo "OFF"
echo 0 > /sys/bus/platform/devices/gta02-pm-gsm.0/power_on
sleep 2
echo "ON"
echo 1 > /sys/bus/platform/devices/gta02-pm-gsm.0/power_on
sleep 2
    for C in "$@"
        sleep 2
        echo "SENDING $C" 1>&2
        echo "$C"
    sleep 4
} | socat - file:/dev/ttySAC0,crtscts,crnl,ispeed=9600,ospeed=9600

Here for C in "$@"; do ...; done will loop through each argument of the script and send them as AT commands to the modem.

AT Commands

AT commands get their name from the characters AT that they begin with. Later extensions begin with AT+. This prefix must be included when sending commands!

Note: Some sites/listings (e.g. leave off the prefix, saying things like “Syntax of the +CMGD AT Command”. In this case the bytes we should send over the serial line are not +CMGD, they are AT+CMGD.

Some useful things to know, that may not be immediately obvious:

# ./go 'AT'
^@^@^@AT-Command Interpreter ready
# ./go 'AT+CPMS=?'
^@^@AT-Command Interpreter ready
+CPMS: ("ME","SM"),("ME","SM"),("ME","SM")


Here we see (...),(...),(...) which tells us that there are three parameters. Each parameter can either be "ME" or "SM" (including the quotes!). In this case these represent the modem’s storage and the SIM card, respectively.

Now try sending some commands, good luck!