How Benghazi got back phone service

Abu Dhabi resident and telecoms executive Ousama Abushagur explains how he restored Libyan rebels' lines of communication.

ABU DHABI - 14APRIL2011 - Ousama Abushagur, Libyan-American UAE resident whi helped set up an independent phone network ineastern Libya independent of Qaddafi walks on Hamdam street in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
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ABU DHABI // Rebels and civilians in eastern Libya who recently had their phone connections restored can thank an unlikely hero. Ousama Abushagur is a 31-year-old Libyan-American telecommunications executive living in the UAE with his wife and baby son.
Mr Abushagur had already helped raise $1 million (Dh3.67 million) for relief, and had sent lorries and boatloads of aid to Libya, when he realised he could do far more.
Libyans in the rebel-held east of the country were struggling to communicate because the government controlled the cellphone network from Tripoli, he said. Families could not call their relatives on the front lines. Men involved in the fighting could not call each other. Leaders could not talk to supporters overseas.
So on March 6 Mr Abushagur began to devise a plan to establish an independent cellphone network in eastern Libya. With the help of a quickly assembled team of telecommunications experts who had experience building networks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, as well as engineers in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi and Libyan donors in the region, the system began running on April 2.
"Here it is - someone's calling from Libya," he said last week, back from his adventure and checking his mobile at a coffee shop. "It's nice when you get the call."
Mr Abushagur, who lived in the US until moving to Abu Dhabi four years ago, grew up with close ties to the Libyan expatriate community. When fighting broke out in February, he and others tapped that network to raise funds and deliver aid to the Libyans fighting against the forces of the country's longtime ruler Col Muammar Qaddafi.
After a few weeks, he said, "I realised I could do something based on my field [ ...] that would contribute to all the Libyans at one time. People were so desperate to call their families," he said.
Rebel leaders had to go outside to make calls on their satellite phones, putting themselves at risk, he said. Fighters told him they had struggled to co-ordinate their attacks.
On March 6, Mr Abushagur began tapping engineers in Libya and industry contacts worldwide to figure out how to set up a system as quickly as possible - all while eyeing the Qaddafi forces' march toward Benghazi.
By March 10 they had determined what they needed.
By March 21 they had raised a few million dollars, and ordered and received four key components that would allow them to connect outside the country, recover user information and enable text messages and billing.
But while delivering the equipment, they hit a roadblock: customs officials in Cairo.
"It was frustrating. We would go to customs and just draw our hair out and say, 'Are we going to be done today?' " Mr Abushagur said.
A few engineers went ahead, carrying equipment by hand, to lay the groundwork. On March 28 the rest of the team and equipment - filling half an eighteen-wheeler - were cleared to enter.
They worked around the clock, finishing in the early hours of the morning.
"I have barely slept in the past month - about three hours a day," project manager Fred Wohl said by phone on Tuesday from the Cairo airport. "We've accomplished a lot in a very short period of time."
Now in Libya, some 800,000 people are able to use the new system.
"My wife called me from America for the first time last week and she surprised the heck out of me. Now she is calling me every day," said rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani. "Before, I was using borrowed satellite phones for very brief conversations just to tell her that everything was OK."
The network does have limits. Though everyone can receive international calls, only a few hundred can make them. Service stops at the city of Ajdabiya. Benghazi resident Ahmed Sanalla, 26, said that when his parents phone from Britain, they often get a busy signal.
But the telecommunications team is not finished. They hope to expand to one million users and enable text messages soon. Billing will come later.
Another task is to reach out to over 1,000 telecommunications providers worldwide to link their networks with the new Libyan network. About eight have already done so, including the UAE's Etisalat and firms in Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt. "Almost every day we hope to add one country," said Christophe Justens, who is overseeing the outreach. "It won't be like a traditional new network rollout."
Media reports said that the UAE's main telecommunications provider, Etisalat, assisted with the set-up in Libya, but Mr Abushagur denied this. Etisalat declined to comment.
With additional reporting by Rolla Scolari in Benghazi, Libya
Network fits in a briefcase
Setting up a telecommunications network in a short time in a war zone can be risky but is doable, said a telecom expert.
Portable fast-set-up systems have been available for years, having been developed mostly to help restore communications quickly after disasters such as earthquakes.
"Being able to deploy very fast is on everyone's mind. The first thing you want is utilities, inclusive of telecom," said the expert, who declined to be named. "There are 'briefcase setups' that do exist."
Telecom networks have been set up this way in conflict zones as well, he said. Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan all saw foreign private firms come in to set up service in the midst of civil war or insurgency.
"It takes a special character to take the initiative to do it, certainly. But technically it shouldn't be too difficult," he said.
Some of the key equipment used in Benghazi was compact enough to be carried by one person. It came from a US-based firm called Tecore Networks that specialises in compact rapid-deployment network kits.
"We were able to provide this in the size of a briefcase," said the Tecore chief executive, Jay Salkini. "It was checked in as luggage."