Libyan-American IT guy builds pirate cell net for rebels

Main ingredients: donated gear, napkin-based design and chutzpah

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libyan rebels

Combination picture shows a bullet falling out of a magazine as a rebel fires his gun in the air during the funeral for helicopter pilot Captain Hussein Al-Warfali in Benghazi April 12, 2011.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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Have you ever wondered – while sitting in yet another project-requirements meeting, or service-level delivery-evaluation meeting, or project-disaster post-mortem meeting – whether IT really does make a broad difference in the world? Beyond just letting people shop online and play Angry Birds on their iPads while pretending to take notes during classes you teach so they'll learn to use systems to do their actual jobs?

Check this out:

A telecom executive born in Libya, raised in Alabama and working in Abu Dhabi is helping the anti-Gadhafi rebels in Libya with a pirate cell-phone network, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Thirty-one-year old Ousama Abushagur designed the network on a napkin, built it using donated hardware, and used it to carve out a chunk of the government-run network that gave government forces modern communications, while the rebels signaled "Advance" and "Retreat" by raising red or green flags and hoping everyone saw them.

Abushagur two friends started out by just raising money to help fund the opposition. After a first trip into the rebel-controlled western part of the country, Abushagur found both his cell and satellite phones blocked.

The national phone network is hub-and-spoke, but the only hubs are in Tripoli, the national capitol. That gave the government control over who could use cell phones and the ability to listen in on those who did.

Using gear contributed by Emirates Telecommunications Corp. (Etisalat), national telecom provider for the United Arab Emirates, money , logistical and technical help from the UAE and Qatr, Abushagur and a volunteer crew shipped in the pirate network, tied it into the national net, and took control over the segment covering rebel-controlled areas.

The pirate network, called Free Libyana, is based in rebel-controlled Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. It connects to the outside world through a satellite link provided by Etisalat, according to anonymous officials in Benghazi, the WSJ story said.

Calls on it are free, at least until Free Libyana figures out a billing system, the story said. (Which seems gratuitous in the middle of a revolution, but IT does cost money and someone does have to pay for it.)

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