How ‘rebel’ phone network evaded shutdown

Telecoms engineers in eastern Libya have managed to outwit government moves to sever the region’s communications. – Published on AlJazeera, April 23, 2011.

Benghazi, LIBYA — On February 17, Ahmed el-Mahdawi’s duty engineer called him from the Libyana mobile phone company’s switch room in Benghazi’s Fuihat neighbourhood. Military and internal security forces had begun brutally repressing anti-government protesters in Libya’s second-largest city, and gunfire rang out through the darkened streets.

“Ahmed, it’s dangerous, I’m going home,” the man said.

Ahmed told him to go. The man closed down the office, locked the door and left. The team would return five days later. In the meantime, protesters overthrew the city’s military garrison and ousted forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Hundreds of civilians were killed and injured.

As the violence raged, Gaddafi’s regime severed eastern Libya’s communication with the outside world, blocking internet access and international phone calls. News of the brutal crackdown leaked out through rare satellite Internet connections that allowed residents to make intermittent Skype calls, MSN chats, and sometimes upload mobile phone videos. Occasionally, an international call connected to a voice in Benghazi.

Through luck and ingenuity, Libyana, one of the country’s two main mobile phone providers, managed to stay online, providing free service throughout the uprising and allowing members of the opposition movement to communicate with one other.

Now, more than two months after the revolt began, and with eastern cities poised to soon regain internet access and international calls, Mahdawi and other local engineers explained how they kept the lines open and why they are upset that a Libyan-American executive living in the United Arab Emirates seems to have gotten all the credit.

“Communication is needed to make people comfortable,” Mahdawi said. “We don’t need people to be scared.”

Survival by accident:

The survival of a mobile phone network in eastern Libya, where the communications crackdown has driven the price of Libyana SIM cards to around $111 on the black market, is almost an accident.

Al-Madar, the country’s other mobile provider, has been shut down in the east since the revolt began. Gaddafi’s government in Tripoli not only ordered the General Post and Telecommunications Company to switch off access from the main offices in the capital, it also severed Libya’s main “backbone” fibre optic cable, which connected eastern phone and internet networks to the main servers in the west … //

… Priority to key institutions:

When internet returns to eastern Libya, it will also come through a satellite, Athrm said, most likely from an Italian provider. Because the so-called VSAT, or “very small aperture terminal”, will have a far lower capacity than the cut fibreoptic cable once did, the engineers said they will not be able to let everyone on at once.

They will give access first to key institutions, such as banks and government buildings, though soon they hope to allow residential users to get on the satellite internet using their existing connections.

To avoid clogging the network, they will block YouTube and peer-to-peer downloading sites and may also set low download and upload rates, giving users connections with the comparative speed of a fast dial-up modem.

But no matter what the speed, the return of the internet to east Libya will likely restore at least some normalcy to the lives of eastern residents, who until now have been able to read email and check up on friends only if they know someone who has set up their own ad hoc satellite connection – as some protesters did at Benghazi’s main courthouse – or if they succeeded in begging a few minutes of computer use from a member of the international media.

Low-wage service workers, many of them immigrants from South Asian countries, often plead with reporters for access to satellite phones so they can call family members who likely have not heard from their relatives in weeks, if not months. Restoring international service to mobile phones will not be much of a boon to such labourers, many of whom sold their SIM cards for extra cash.

But the issue has become personal for men like Mahdawi and Athrm, who witnessed the Gaddafi regime’s violence first-hand.

Athrm said he has received emails from LTT engineers in Tripoli expressing their anger with the government’s actions, their solidarity with the eastern opposition movement, and their disgust with the regime’s crackdown in the west.

Some have stayed home from work in protest, though Mohammed Benayed, the chairman of the General Post and Telecommunications Company, has apparently threatened to withhold the salaries of those who do not turn up for work, according to Athrm.

Athrm’s former managers in the capital simply have not contacted him at all since February 17, when the crackdown began in earnest.

On that day, Athrm joined protesters who were trying to cross a bridge into central Benghazi and reach a demonstration outside the city’s main courthouse. He handed his mobile phone to a reporter, showing a video he took of the moment when mercenaries wearing yellow hard hats opened fire on the advancing crowd. The phone’s tinny speakers blared the noise of shouting and a stream of gunfire.

“Three guys were hit next to me,” he said. “I had to help take them back to the hospital, without any introduction.” (full long text).

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