How ‘rebel’ phone network evaded shutdown

Telecoms engineers in eastern Libya have managed to outwit government moves to sever the region’s communications.

Mobile phone access has been sporadic in parts of rebel-held eastern Libya since the conflict began [Getty Images]

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.

Faisal Safi, who runs telecommunications in Benghazi, said internet service will return in days [Al Jazeera]

The cable, which runs under water along the coast from Tobruk in the east to Ras Ajdir in the west, was cut – either physically or electronically – somewhere between the cities of Misurata and Khomas, the engineers said

That killed the east’s access to Madar and the Libya Telecom and Technology company (LTT), the country’s internet service provider.

But Libyana got lucky. Founded in 2004, eight years after Madar, it was less centralised and less beholden to the regime-controlled management in Tripoli. Best of all, engineers in Benghazi had their own HLR, or home location register.

The HLR stored subscriber information for every Libyana user. When a Libyana phone turned on and dialled a number, the HLR recognised the phone’s ID and connected it to the network. Such databases are essential to a functioning mobile phone system, and Madar’s were in Tripoli. Libyana had kept one in Benghazi as a back-up.

“I think Gaddafi made a mistake by leaving all that equipment here,” said Faisal Safi, the local telecommunications and transport chief for Benghazi’s opposition council.

Mahdawi, the top Libyana engineer in the city, worked with his team to install the HLR and configure it for use. No one had previous experience setting one up. After the team installed the hardware, Libyana service returned to the east, relayed via the existing array of antenna towers.

The engineers made mobile service free, but with Madar shut down, they experienced a surge of users, all of whom now had unlimited minutes.

The flood overwhelmed the network, and Mahdawi spent the next week at home, tweaking the system from his personal computer.

Even today, service remains problematic. Reception fades in and out, and calls typically connect – if ever – only after several attempts. To reduce the load, Mahdawi and his team have had to adopt new roles as harsh arbiters of service. Subscribers who drag the system down – those making hour-and-a-half-long phone calls eight times a day – have been indefinitely suspended until “Free Libyana”, as the eastern network is called, can collect new SIM cards and reinstate a pre-paid system.

International calls difficult

The network has another drawback: Most users still can’t call out of the country.

A temporary solution was found when a foreign team arrived to help after negotiations between eastern rebel politicians and the United Arab Emirates. The new team included a Libyan-American telecom executive and American and South African engineers, contracted for work by Etisalat, a state-owned UAE telecom provider.

But because the jury-rigged system lacks the bandwidth of a standard network, the Libyan engineers have only given international calling ability to “VIP” Libyana numbers, such as those used by members of the opposition Transitional National Council and other local officials.

Mahdawi and the other engineers bristle at the way the international calling arrangement has been covered by the international media. Ousama Abushagur, the 31-year-old Libyan-American executive who arrived to help in March and who lives in the UAE, received a glowing review in a Wall Street Journal article that portrayed him as nearly single-handedly reviving the east’s entire mobile phone network.

Rebel commanders had been unable to communicate with one another by phone until Abushagur arrived and implemented his plan to restore service in March, according to the article.

But Mahdawi and the engineers strenuously deny that account. Thanks to their efforts, they said, local mobile service never went down in the east.

“Ousama honestly didn’t even touch a keyboard,” Mahdawi said. “The service they provided was providing a channel to make international calls. Configuration is the more difficult side.”

Muftah el-Athrm, an engineer for LTT, the internet provider, said he was equally puzzled.

Libyan engineers diagrammed how their mobile network now connects internationally via satellite [Al Jazeera]

“Up to today, I don’t know what role he played,” Athrm said.

According to Athrm and Mahdawi, abushagurr and the rest of the team arrived at the Egyptian border with a large satellite dish, a modem, routers and other equipment, worth millions of dollars and essential to connecting the existing Libyana network to Etisalat and the rest of the world.

With Abushagur were Fred, an American, and Mark, a South African. The engineers said they could not remember the men’s last names, but that they worked for Tecore, a Maryland-based networking company that specialises, among other things, in disaster recovery and providing “networks in a box”. Tecore works on a subcontract with Etisalat, the Libyan engineers said.

Fred managed the project, Mahdawi said, and soon the incoming team had installed a 3.8-metre satellite dish outside the Benghazi Medical Centre, as well as additional equipment at a nearby indoor facility. Fred got on the phone with the company providing the satellite link and connected the Libyan network to Etisalat.

The Libyan telecom engineers, with crucial technical assistance from local employees of China-based Huawei Technologies, who had got the key Libyana database running earlier, put the whole system together and configured it, Mahdawi said.

Abushagur’s remarks to the Journal made it seem as though he was personally responsible for restoring communication to eastern Libya, said Safi, the local committee member, when in his opinion, Abushagur “just brought with him some equipment and installed it”.

Still, Safi praised the Emirati government, which he said had acted to help the Libyan opposition out of Arab brotherhood and had not asked for anything in return.

He said that officials in the east also have been negotiating with Qtel, the Qatar-owned internet and mobile service provider, for assistance in restoring the Libyan network to full capacity, but that Qtel has yet to receive permission from the Qatari government.

But the delay has not disappointed Safi, a former flight engineer for Libyan Airlines, who noted Qatar’s previous diplomatic and military assistance. He said Qatari engineers were also helping to repair Benghazi’s airport.

“We will find people to provide equipment,” he said. “We have some connections at high levels in the telecommunications industry.”

Safi and the engineers declined to name their connections but said that one Libyan expatriate, also a telecom executive, was personally providing funding to keep the ad-hoc mobile phone network running.

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.”

Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

Source: Al Jazeera