Internet And Mobile Tools In Libya During The Revolution

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by: Paolo Gorgo

While the Libyan regime is crumbling, and opposition supporters have entered the capital, apparently meeting little resistance from Col Muammar Gaddafi's troops, we'd like to turn our attention to the state of internal communications in the country, and the role that Internet played during the revolution.

According to Rana Jawad of BBC News, "after being cut off for six months, the internet has been switched on again, after rebels took over the main, state-controlled ISP. The two state-run mobile phone companies have topped up about £25 worth of credit to all their subscribers free of charge".

There is little doubt that the Libyan regime, in a move similar to Egypt or Syria, just to name two recent examples, has done its best to control the access to information available to its people, including trying to block access to the Internet.

A quick look at Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) transparency report (information about traffic to Google services around the world) seems to confirm that a bottle neck has been uncorked in Libya (although the site alerts to interpret the latest data with caution):

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Renesys, a company that operates a real time global sensor grid that continuously monitors, collects, analyzes and correlates Internet routing data, has several interesting information about the recent state of the Internet in Libya. All Libyan networks that appear in the global routing table are routed by Libyan Telecom and Technology (LTT) via Telecom Italia (OTCPK:TIAJF). Here is a quick look at a small segment of Telecom Italia Group's network in the area, which is connecting to Tripoli:

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It is no surprise that "inbound traceroutes appear[ed] to die in Palermo" when the Gaddafi's regime tried to switch off Internet access from/to the country - Libya seemed to enjoy both the advantage of having a single route to shut, if needed, and the comfort of a partner with a large number of peering agreements all over the world to access the whole Internet.

A look at Peeringdb reveals that Telecom Italia has access to most key peering points in the world, including Equinix (NASDAQ:EQIX), InterXion (NYSE:INXN), Level3 (NYSE:LVLT) and Telecity (OTCPK:TLEIY) in Europe, the non profit AMS-IX, LINX and DE-CIX, as well as Equinix, Terremark, now a subsidiary of Verizon (NYSE:VZ), and TelX in the USA, so gaining direct connections to the largest carriers in the world.

Back to Renesys, here is how its blog describes, through the analysis of its data, the recent events in the country:

The Battle for Tripoli's Internet

We're still piecing together the data that can confirm or deny much of what's been reported overnight, but one thing is clear: something very strange was going on with Tripoli residents' Internet access. Service was restored suddenly in Tripoli, flickered on and off for a couple of hours, and then died, with the majority of the country's international BGP routes withdrawn from service for good measure.

A more detailed description of recent events highlights the difficulty in accessing information about what happened, but also the importance played by social networks like twitter or alternative communication tools like Skype for Libyan people:

Operation "Mermaid Dawn"

Nonetheless, it became apparent from the Libyan Twitterstream over the last couple days that things were about to heat up in Tripoli. It seemed likely that mobile networks, and perhaps the entire phone system, could be shut down within the capital, as the government attempted to prevent the Tripoli uprising from self-organizing. There were sporadic tweets about phone calls not completing, but the expected telecoms shutdown never came.

Instead, Al Jazeera began to report that Tripoli residents were receiving mobile phone text messages, urging them to take to the streets (typically, in the fog of war, it seems unclear whether they were being exhorted to support the government or the rebels). And early Sunday morning, the Twitterstream suddenly began reporting something that seemed, on the face of it, totally improbable: the Internet had been turned back on.

Why would the government turn the Internet back on in the middle of an armed uprising? To get people to stay at home and catch up on five months of email? It seemed preposterous. But clearly, as more and more people realized, it had happened. Bandwidth was scarce, but DSL service was back. People started Skypeing with friends and relatives, some reporting hearing live gunfire in the background as their VoIP calls began to connect.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, Tripoli's Internet access stopped working again. For a total of perhaps an hour and a half of uptime, spread out in bursts between the hours of 2:00am and 4:30am, local time, the Internet had been functional again. Who was responsible? Would it come back?

Update (12:00am Monday in Tripoli): LTT website (ltt.ly) is back online, and the Arabic crawl at the bottom says "Congratulations, Libya, on emancipation from the rule of the tyrant."

The last comment seems an indirect confirmation of BBC's Rana Jawad report, that the rebels may be controlling the main, state-controlled ISP - which, as noticed, may also explain Google's uptick in traffic to their services. It's certainly too soon to call for a normalized situation, but there is little doubt that controlling key infrastructures, like access to communications and the Internet, could represent a crucial strategic advantage for Libyan opposition supporters, and finally allow all of us to get more detailed information about what is happening in the country.

Disclosure: I am long EQIX, INXN.