How Eastern Libya got cell-phone service back

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating account of how Ousama Abushagur, a Libyan-American telecom executive based in Abu Dhabi, helped restore cell-phone service to eastern Libya, which, along with Internet service, was cut off in early March: On March 6, during a flight back to the United Arab Emirates after organizing a naval convoy ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating account of how Ousama Abushagur, a Libyan-American telecom executive based in Abu Dhabi, helped restore cell-phone service to eastern Libya, which, along with Internet service, was cut off in early March:

On March 6, during a flight back to the United Arab Emirates after organizing a naval convoy to the embattled city of Misrata, Mr. Abushagur says he drew up a diagram on the back of a napkin for a plan to infiltrate Libyana, pirate the signal and carve out a network free of Tripoli's control. […]

Once in Libya, the team paired with Libyana engineers and executives based in Benghazi. Together, they fused the new equipment into the existing cellphone network, creating an independent data and routing system free from Tripoli's command.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating account of how Ousama Abushagur, a Libyan-American telecom executive based in Abu Dhabi, helped restore cell-phone service to eastern Libya, which, along with Internet service, was cut off in early March:

On March 6, during a flight back to the United Arab Emirates after organizing a naval convoy to the embattled city of Misrata, Mr. Abushagur says he drew up a diagram on the back of a napkin for a plan to infiltrate Libyana, pirate the signal and carve out a network free of Tripoli’s control. […]

Once in Libya, the team paired with Libyana engineers and executives based in Benghazi. Together, they fused the new equipment into the existing cellphone network, creating an independent data and routing system free from Tripoli’s command.

The team also captured the Tripoli-based database of phone numbers, giving them information necessary to patch existing Libyana customers and phone numbers into their new system—which they dubbed "Free Libyana." The last piece of the puzzle was securing a satellite feed through which the Free Libyana calls could be routed—a solution provided by Etisalat, according to Benghazi officials.

On April 2, Mr. Abushagur placed a test call on the system to his wife back in Abu Dhabi. "She’s the one who told me to go for it in the first place," he said.

International calling from Libya is still limited to the few individuals and officials in eastern Libya who most need it. Incoming calls have to be paid for by prepaid calling cards, except for Jordan, Egypt and Qatar.

One major hurdle for the project was the Chinese company Huawei Technologies, which helped install the original Libyan network and refused to sell equipment to the rebel project.

Who would have thought that Gulf-based, expat, high-tech executives would emerge as the heroes of North Africa’s revolutions?

Hat tip: Ethan Zuckerman

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: Libya

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