Ousama Abushagur stole a mobile phone network from Colonel Gadaffi's son, and has told El Reg how it was done and what the future holds for Free Libyana.
The Wall Street Journal covered the launch of Free Libyana yesterday, how the Libyana network was subverted and hijacked to serve the country without reference to Tripoli. That coverage provided great drama, but little in the way of technical details and a few inaccuracies that Abushagur would like to clear up: specifically the complete lack of governmental support he received, and the necessity for international calls to be routed through London's Docklands.
Despite these issues the Free Libyana network is now connecting 725,000 users across an area comparable in size to England, without having to build any network infrastructure or install base stations - all that was stolen from one of the existing operators, along with its customers.
Libya has two GSM networks; AL MADAR AL JADID and Libyana. The latter was selected not because it happens to be run by Gadaffi's son, but because its network infrastructure was well known and local engineers in Benghazi could be relied upon to help. Abushagur didn't steal the network alone, but he did come up with the idea and raise the money to make it happen.
The London routing happens because the satellite connectivity for international calling is being leased from the IDT Corporation. IDT provides per-minute billing, via pre-paid cards, for connections from Benghazi to London's Telehouse and from there to the rest of the world - at least the parts of it that accept the existence of the Free Libyana network.
The WSJ faithfully quoted a Benghazi official who claimed the UAE government and its operator Etisalat provided vital support for the project, along with the government of Qatar, but Abushagur is having none of it. "I wish they did [provide support]," he told us. "If one of them could have waved a flag we might not have been stuck in Egyptian customs for more than a week."
When we spoke last night Etisalat was not even routing calls onto the Free Libyana network, though this morning that seems to have improved as more operators start routing calls to the new operator. But what's most annoyed Abushagur and the others involved is the inference that governments might have contributed financially to the creation of Free Libyana.
"We raised all the money from Libyans who could see it was important. We're still waiting for all the money and equipment [media reports] say we have received."
That money was spent on equipment, primarily a Home Location Register (HLR) bought from Tecore Networks. Every mobile network has one HLR, which tracks every mobile phone so it knows where calls should be routed. When Free Libyana set up in Benghazi the local Libyana engineers provided access to the VLRs (Visitor Location Register) which provide details of nearby handsets. That data was then used to populate the new HLR and get things up and running.
That enables Free Libyana users to keep their existing phone numbers - important when you're trying to track down friends and family - but it also means that all the communication over Free Libyana is entirely unencrypted.