With wired Internet locked, Egypt looks to the sky

Satellite Internet services could offer another outlet to send information after Egypt's shutdown of the Web

On Wednesday afternoon, Mohammad Al-Najjar received an unexpected text message from a contact in Egypt: "We r at war here pray4 us."

The message came as the Egyptian government continued an unprecedented block on Internet traffic and mobile communications providers on Friday following mass demonstrations calling for President Hosni Mubarek to resign.

Al-Najjar, a 25-year-old in Amman, Jordan, has been watching the demonstrations closely, collaborating with other friends online to figure out ways for people in Egypt to send information.

The SMS was sent via Etisalat, a carrier based in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Najjar said. It shows that the Egyptian government may not have completely clamped down on mobile services. Vodafone Egypt said in a statement Friday that "all mobile operators have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas."

"SMSs were not going through for a couple of days now, and we think it was intentional," Al-Najjar said.

Although the Internet remains locked down in Egypt, Al-Najjar has been participating in the lively stream of posts on Twitter using the hashtags #Jan25 and #Egypt.

Some of those postings suggest the use of satellite Internet services offered by companies such as Thuraya, Iridium and Inmarsat.

"While in conversation last night, two guys said that they will have the ability to buy one of those phones and transmit," Al-Najjar said. "They were given 18 [phone] numbers outside Egypt to send [photos] to."

Foreign media posted in Cairo published dramatic photos on Friday of protestors battling police firing tear gas and using water cannons to disperse crowds. But absent Internet or mobile phone access, it's much more difficult for most Egyptians to self-publish, an act that has become an increasingly important component of breaking news coverage.

Satellite Internet services aren't cheap, however, compared to wired Internet access. Al-Najjar said a satellite-capable phone could cost around US$1,300 in Egypt.

A Thuraya customer service representative said on Friday there were no issues with its service in Egypt, but she did not know if there was an uptick in traffic coming from the country.

Satellite services are not dependent on local carriers for connectivity. So someone in Egypt, for example, could snap a photo of the protests and upload it to a computer connected to a BGAN satellite modem.

As long as the person has aimed the portable modem properly at the satellite, the person should have broadband Internet access, said a sales representative based in South Africa for GlobalCom, which sells portable Internet access for Iridium, Thuraya, Inmarsat and Globalstar Satellite.

Representatives for Inmarsat and Iridium did not have an immediate comment.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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