The telecom front in the Libyan civil war


The first step in winning a war is to control information and the flow of it. We’ve seen it again and again especially with the recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa. In Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and more recently in Libya, the governments quickly cut off cell phone and Internet access to its people in hopes to disrupt the organization of mass protests and civil unrest.

Just a month ago, before the NATO sanctioned no-fly zone in place now over Libya, rebel forces had to rely on hand motions and flag waving to coordinate attacks to push through westward toward Gadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli. That’s because Col. Gadhafi had severed the nation’s telephone and Internet services in March to gain an advantage against the opposition. But thanks to a resourceful Libyan-American telecom executive, millions of Libyans now can at least make domestic cellphone calls again and a handful of them in eastern Libya able to call internationally.

Ousama Abushagur (Twitter @oabushagur) is an Libya-American telecom executive raised in the high-tech southern city of Huntsville, Alabama. He put together a plan to hijack the cellphone network operated by Libyan General Telecommunications Authority which is run by Col. Gadhafi’s eldest son. Abushagur was able to secure the necessary telecom equipment from Gulf states Qatar and UAE (China’s Huawei, Libya’s telecom contractor, declined to sell any equipment) as well as satellite service from Etisalat.

Then he just had to figure out a way to ship the equipment along with a team of engineers. And of course, bodyguards.

In the end Abushagur and his team succeeded in bringing back cellphone service not only to the rebels but also to the millions of citizens. The new cellphone network, dubbed “Free Libyana,” indeed offers free domestic calling for now because no billing system is in place.

His idea is actually quite disruptive. Who wouldn’t want to run their own cellphone service? Obviously there are costly telecom equipment to consider as well as highly specialized engineering knowledge. Interestingly, the idea wasn’t to deploy a data network capable of wireless VOIP — cheaper, easier, faster? — but stick with the traditional cellphone service. As much as we’re in love with VOIP, the majority of handsets out there are GSM and not smartphones running fancy VOIP apps. Also, it was probably harder to hijack an ISP’s service.

The Wall Street Journal has more details on this fascinating story.

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