We need to ignite a Layer-1 revolution

Egypt's revolution was heralded as a success story for social media services such as Twitter and Facebook. Western journalists fawned over every rare example of social media, ignoring the more mundane but far more important communication services such as cellular phone calls and text messaging. The really interesting story out of Egypt, and more recently Libya, Iran and other places was the communications blackouts imposed by each regime. While the west focused on layer-7 technologies, the tyrants were smart enough to strike at the root of their citizens efforts: layer-1 physical layer connectivity for phones.

Instead of glamorizing Facebook, perhaps the west needs to consider the serious implications of the ease with which these regimes are able to disconnect their countries from the world. Turns out the Internet "was designed to survive a nuclear strike", but falls easily to BGP null-routing or good old-fashioned garden shears on a few carefully selected cables. The countries that need communication redundancy and survivability the most have so few connections to the Internet that they can easily be turned off. There's a solution to this problem: satellite Internet uplinks providing local guerrilla-GSM with pico cells.

During WWII and also the cold war, western nations broadcast pro-west propaganda into hostile nations with the Voice of America. Western intelligence services also provided short-wave radios to get information out of the country. Today's equivalent would be the "ISP of America", a last-resort provider for connectivity to cell phones and satellite modems. Such a satellite service could be rapidly positioned over countries with communications blackouts providing an ISP-in-the-sky. Low cost satellite modems and GSM pico cells could be air-dropped, smuggled over borders or built locally out of consumer electronics by geek rebels.

In an ideal world, the State Department or Department of Defense would invest in such technologies, not only for revolution support but also to handle ad-hoc citizen communications during natural disasters. In the absence of government support, there are grassroots alternatives emerging. A non-profit group in the U.S. (ahumanright.org) is planning to buy an existing telecommunications satellite (buythissatellite.org) to offer free Internet to countries in Africa. Such a solution could be deployed for emergencies and combined with OpenBTS, an open source GSM "access point" solution, to allow regular GSM phones to make calls and send video to a guerilla base station out of the control of the local regime.

Despite advances in social media and smartphones with cameras, the most important component of a revolution is still basic communications at layer-1 of the protocol stack. With the right combination of grass roots solutions and open source technology, future revolutionaries could defeat the tyrants by building "improvised communications devices" proving that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. All they need is an ISP of last resort.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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