While fighting between Libyan rebels and Muammar Gadhafi’s government forces continues, the rebels have gained an innovation–two DIY mobile phone networks of their own. Earlier this month, engineers arrived via fishing boat to set up a mobile network in the recently conquered city of Misurata. The result is a working phone network… where customer service can be found via Twitter.
Ousama Abushagur, a Libyan telecommunications engineer who returned to the country from the United Arab Emirates after the anti-Gadhafi rebellion began, is the founder of rebel mobile phone network Free Libyana. Abushagur, who speaks fluent English thanks to a childhood in Alabama, maintains a constantly updated Twitter feed offering English-language support to users with difficulty accessing the network due to the war.
A group of engineers affiliated with Abushagur reportedly entered Misurata after a 30-hour fishing boat trip from Malta. The engineers bought equipment on the boat that was used to rebuild and convert an existing Ericsson base station which was previously used by Libya’s state mobile network. Most of Misurata’s infrastructure, including communications facilities, was heavily damaged during months of fighting.
Free Libyana was founded in early April after Abushagur and several friends successfully appropriated portions of the Gadhafi-controlled Libyana mobile network and rewired it to run independently. Abushagur’s action essentially created an independent mobile phone network through the creative hijacking of a preexisting corporate infrastructure. Thanks to the new network, rebels in Benghazi and other major Libyan cities were able to make phone calls independently. Libya’s state security systems are known for monitoring calls made via Libyana. Shortly after the network’s launch, state authorities began jamming calls. Satellite phones were also targeted.
The Misurata network is run separately from Free Libyana, but many of the same individuals are behind it. Shortly after the network’s launch, government authorities began jamming Free Libyana’s network, along with satellite phone calls made throughout Libya.
The network is currently relying on donations from the Libyan diaspora to maintain financing. Calls to domestic lines are free and foreigners can call Free Libyana lines via calling card. Customer service for the Misurata network is strictly local; new customers have to be manually entered into the network due both to infrastructure issues and fear of pro-government spies using the service.
As of July 2011, much of Free Libyana’s infrastructure reportedly consists of donated telecommunications equipment from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates that was sent to replace the previous state-owned network backend.