Vodafone says it had to cut mobile service in Egypt

Carriers react to indirect threats to employees -- and their investments

Vodafone, with 28 million cellular customers in Egypt, and France Telecom restored mobile voice services there on Saturday, one day after service stopped because the government demanded the cut-off, Vodafone said on its Web site.

Vodafone's rational for complying with the government was that "there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone..., but to comply with the demands of the authorities." The carrier also noted that it had a priority to protect its employees in Egypt.

"Any actions we take in Egypt will be judged in light of [employees'] continuing well-being," Vodafone said in its statement.

The carrier said that the same cut-off demands were made of other carriers in Egypt. Those carriers have apparently not commented on the restoration of service or offered an explanation for what happened.

Vodafone made it clear to a world watching deadly protests in Egypt that no matter how sophisticated and secure a privately-run communications network may be, it is still vulnerable to government authority. The cut-off of nearly all wireless and Internet connections outraged many free speech advocates.

Analysts and others said that from a technical standpoint, there probably isn't a simple "kill switch" that can stop mobile voice communications, unlike the way core router configurations were apparently changed, a move that ended Internet communications on Friday.

Instead, a government that licenses a mobile authority can threaten violence to individual cell towers or backhaul networks, or to employees working for the carrier. Future license renewals can also be threatened for non-compliance, analysts noted.

"Most providers will follow a government's request if they don't want to lose their investment," said Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner. "I don't think there's a [kill] switch, but the government has the providers shut down.... Unfortunately, autocratic agents will use this [control] to their advantage."

Even the "U.S. [government] would enforce the shutdown of telephony services if it deemed it in the national interest," Redman said. "This has never happened before."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, explained that since carriers are licensed by government authorities "they need to be careful to follow the rules imposed or they may not get a renewal." Essentially, "ruling politicos have a great deal of influence over the carriers in various countries, even though they may not agree with the political whims. They have very little they can do if they don't want to commit suicide."

Gold said that a government can more directly and quickly control a wireless carrier once a signal reaches a backhaul network, where a wired or fiber connection enters a central office or data center. Router configurations in the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) could be altered at a central point to affect communication, preventing a wireless data call's access to the Internet and ending access to Facebook or e-mail.

Voice and text networks usually operate on separate networks from data, however, and would not necessarily be affected by a BGP configuration change.

Many Egyptians are protesting the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, leading to violent protests that are now in their seventh day. More than 100 people are thought to have been killed.

Even with wireless voice and Internet shutdowns on Friday, some Egyptians used satellite phones as well as dial-up modems and faxes to communicate where gaps in the shutdown occurred.

U.S. wireless carriers and the CTIA, which represents wireless carriers, refused to comment on the Friday shutdown. The major U.S. carriers rely on roaming agreements with cellular carriers in Egypt and were not directly affected. Vodafone has an interest in Verizon Wireless, which refused to comment.

The Egyptian government shutdown did enrage U.S.-based free speech advocates, including the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, which issued a strong statement on Friday. "In a stunning and highly counterproductive step backwards, Egypt has shut down its mobile phone network, cut off Egyptians' Internet access and disappeared the country's presence on the Web," said CDT President Leslie Harris. "This action is inconsistent with all international human rights norms and is unprecedented in Internet history. Egypt's actions will only fuel unrest and make peaceful resolution of grievances far more difficult."

A spokesman at CDT said Monday that the group did not track which carriers complied with the Egyptian government shutdown request.

The Global Network Initiative, a Washington-based group that works with carriers facing government shutdowns and censorship, said in a statement Friday that it was "deeply concerned that the people of Egypt have been denied access to Internet and telecommunications services. This almost unprecedented step has enormous implications for human rights."

GNI said ISPs and communications carriers face a difficult situation in Egypt and other locations. "We urge companies to take action to protect freedom of expression and privacy and preserve a free and open Internet," GNI added. "We urge the Egyptian government to respect its international human rights commitments."

One first step carriers can take to avoid "duress" by governments is to remain open with government authorities and to put in place human rights principles that will determine how the carriers respond to a government request, GNI said.

GNI works with various groups for open Internet and communications networks and directly advises Microsoft, Yahoo and Google on such matters, said Susan Morgan, director of GNI. She said the group would have nothing further to add to the Friday statement, but she added that GNI has been conferring with several wireless carriers on the situation in Egypt.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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