Lock up your base stations

26 Feb 2008

One of the more underappreciated but perennial challenges for mobile operators in markets where insurgency is fairly common is that your cell phone towers end up being at the business end of someone's strategy.

For example, the BBC reported yesterday that the Taliban in Afghanistan have threatened to blow up cell phone towers across the country unless mobile phone companies agree to switch off their signals at night.

They're demanding that Afghanistan's four cellcos shut the base stations down between 5 pm and 3 am, supposedly to keep US and NATO troops from tracking them. The cellcos have until tomorrow to comply, after which the bombings begin.

It's an odd request, as security strategies go - assuming the military is using the cell networks to track the insurgents instead of merely using satellites, there's nothing stopping the military from using phone networks to track them in the daytime (though it may be easier at night, if only because there's less traffic to sort through). Odder still that the Taliban would bother to ask first before blasting away.

But then it's not always about countersecurity. The Register speculates that the Taliban might simply want the spectrum freed up so they can run their own networks at night with cheap micro/pico cells (though that wouldn't make them any less trackable). Which would be ironic since the Taliban banned mobile phones back when they were running Afghanistan.

Or it could simply be the opening bid for a fundraising ploy. Globe Telecom in the Philippines has lost 40 of its cell phone towers in the last five years to "suspected Communist guerillas" (as they're called) who blew them up for not paying "revolutionary taxes".

Either way, I guess even the Taliban need to have the mobile network running at least some part of the day. Those SMSs start piling up if you leave them too long.

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