x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Blacked-out Syrians turn to satellite phones

The satellite telecommunications provider Thuraya has reported a surge in demand in Syria, unlike thousands of other businesses suffering from the turmoil.

Telecommunications provider Thuraya has reported a surge in demand in Syria. ALI HAIDER / EPA
Telecommunications provider Thuraya has reported a surge in demand in Syria. ALI HAIDER / EPA

Unlike thousands of businesses suffering from the turmoil in Syria, one company has been bucking the trend.

The satellite telecommunications provider Thuraya has reported a surge in demand for its phones and services in the country - so much so that there is now a shortage of hardware.

"We are working around the clock to satisfy the requirements of Syria," said Muiz Saad, the vice president of distribution at Thuraya. "There has been a lot of demand after the communications blackout."

Throughout the conflict, the regime of the president Bashar Al Assad has been taking down mobile networks in a bid to prevent activists and the Free Syrian Army communicating. Most recently there was an internet and communications outage on November 29 that lasted until December 1.

"Thuraya was available to fill in for GSM [global system for mobile communications] and people have been relying on us for support," said Mr Saad.

While Thuraya does not have a physical presence in Syria, it has managed to supply the country through its distribution partners at the borders.

The company has noticed a 40 per cent increase in the amount of traffic on its networks in the wider Middle East since January last year.

Cygnus, based in the UAE and one of Thuraya's service partners and distributors, has posted a 50 per cent increase in sales of pre-paid cards used to make calls on Thuraya phones, which it attributes to activity in Syria.

Much of this demand has been fuelled by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media outlets and the Free Syria Army.

Alongside its satellite phones, Thuraya provides satellite internet services thathelp to provide uninterrupted access to the internet.

It has not always been plain-sailing for the company, however. Early on in the conflict, the satellite providers had their frequencies jammed, preventing people from making phone calls or using satellite services.

"The Syrian government has interfered a lot, but we have managed to overcome this," said Mr Saad.

"The technical team is working to make sure the network is secure and working on the ground. The government wanted us to stop the service, but we never did. They tried to stop the Thuraya network."

Thuraya's gateway for the Middle East is located in the UAE, so the Syrian government has been unsuccessful in its attempts to control the network.

Satellite communications have traditionally proven popular in remote areas without access to fixed line or mobile networks. The Arab Spring, however, has made them a necessity even in big cities with modern infrastructure.

According to Mr Saad, 133 countries are vulnerable to a communications blackout.

One of the most notorious cases was the week-long outage in Egypt in 2011 at the beginning of the country's uprising. The then-president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, took down internet and mobile networks on January 27 in a bid to prevent protests from escalating. Service was resumed on February 2.

thamid@thenational.ae