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Rebels and insurgents need communications. One of the problems with cell phones and WiFi is that they depend on base stations — somewhere there has to be a transceiver that’s hooked to the Internet or the phone switching fabric (or both, or the two may be one and the same), and if you’re a rebel depending on electronic communications you’re SOL when the Big Guy shuts the towers down.

The Economist has an article on guerilla telecommunications, things people can do to restore access when Maximum Leader pulls the plug. Lots of them are pretty clever, and will get you “on the air” in unlikely circumstances. You still need a tower somewhere, though; maybe the neighboring country will provide. But what if the neighbors like your Maximum Leader, or are in cahoots?

A commenter at Moe Lane’s place notes

…a possible capability of the US military (specifically the Air Force’s EC-130J): forcibly offering telecommunications and internet access to restive, rebellious populations.

I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it’s certainly plausible. Military equipment doesn’t shrink as fast as civilian stuff (for good reasons not germane here) but it does shrink, and the smaller, lighter, and more power-efficient it gets the more you can stuff on an airplane, including an EC-130J or an E-3 Sentry. But better yet…

The actual equipment at a cell phone base station is ridiculously small, even though they have plenty of room to spread out in those prefab concrete buildings. It’s a couple of “relay rack” cabinets, not all that different from what you’d see in your server room if you work for a medium-size company or bigger. How hard would it be to shrink it a bit and stuff it into a Global Hawk, or one of the other medium-to-large UAVs they’re building nowadays? Of course there’s always the chance that Maximum Leader’s goons will shoot it down, but that’s just an excuse for a real “no-fly” zone instead of the thinly-disguised air assault that’s currently going on in Libya — and the whole point of Global Hawk is that it’s way up high, hard to get to, and hard to find even if you can get your SU-27 up there.

Subscriptions, number assignment, and the like are problems, but I’ll bet they’re solvable. Maybe less-capable UAVs could airdrop bundles of valid SIM cards, like they did with leaflets in WWII. There are very likely other ways. Not every country in the world uses the American system of phones “locked” to a single provider.

The Fifties SF writer Eric Frank Russell wrote a whole series of stories about the disruptive effect of minor pinpricks in a monolithic system, notably Wasp and Next of Kin (The Space Willies). Charles Stross‘s novel Singularity Sky opens with the invaders dropping millions of free cell phones (and later much else, but that’s pretty disruptive by itself). If we want to give a big boost to rebels and insurgents, assuring them reliable telecommunications free of eavesdropping (by Maximum Leader & Co; of course we’d listen in, in order to keep current with the situation) would be one way to do it — and since it doesn’t involve horrid nasty guns, at least some of the leftoids ought to be able to tolerate it.

It could even be done privately, or semi-privately. Yeah, airplanes are expensive, but not that horribly so in a world where lots of people make $100K and above a year — we see shrieks about OMG a $2 million private jet!!!11!eleventy!!111!, but really, that’s about what Minimum Leader will spill on his vacation in South America. There’s no particular reason why a consortium of like-minded individuals couldn’t put together an approximation using a commercially available aircraft — anything reasonably suitable would already have an autopilot, and UAV software isn’t that hard if all it has to do is a “racetrack” over the affected area. Or, heck, hire the Russians. Aviation is one thing they do really well, and cheaply.

Go for it. The concept is free under the GPL 🙂

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March 2011