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Libyan Rebels Restore Cell Phone Access With Daring Technical Gambit

By Veronique Greenwood
Apr 13, 2011 10:51 PMNov 20, 2019 4:43 AM


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What’s the News: Libyan rebels can put away their semaphore flags and pick up a cell phone again, now that a group led by a Libyan-American telecom executive has hijacked the nation’s downed cell phone network and restored service to part of the country. Colonel Moammar Qaddafi cut off access to the network a month ago in an effort to hamper rebel organization, which it did quite effectively: "We went to fight with flags: Yellow meant retreat, green meant advance," said Gen. Ahmed al-Ghatrani, a rebel commander in Benghazi. "Gadhafi forced us back to the stone age." (via WSJ The rebel phone network went live on April 2, and rebel leaders are using it to communicate with the front lines.

How the Heck:

  • Telecom executive Ousama Abushagur came up with the idea for the network when his phone didn’t work during a humanitarian trip to Libya. Sketching his plan on an airline napkin on the way home to Abu Dhabi, he designed the network to bypass the capital, Tripoli; the Qaddafi government had routed all national network traffic through Tripoli for the purposes of phone tapping and intelligence gathering.

  • In late March, a team of seven engineers and several million dollars worth of telecom equipment provided by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar were smuggled across the Egyptian border to the city of Benghazi.

  • There, the team incorporated their new equipment into the phone network, cutting out Tripoli. Using a captured database of phone numbers, they patched users into the service, and dubbed the new network “Free Libyana.”

  • Free Libyana calls are being routed through satellite feeds courtesy of the United Arab Emirates-run telecom company, Etisalat, say Benghazi officials. (via WSJ) Calls can be made across rebel-held eastern Libya.

The Future Holds: A billing system! International calls are limited and incoming calls mostly require prepaid calling cards, but at the moment, all domestic calls are free.

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