Access to telecommunication networks has acquired a distinct strategic lilt in modern conflicts. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Libyan civil war beginning in 2011 had a marked adverse impact on the country's digital and communications networks. Communications networks between the rebel-held eastern territories of Libya and the then Gaddafi-controlled west were repeatedly severed, with engineers in rebel-held territories having to invent ingenious methods to restore network access. Mobile telephone towers were stolen or destroyed, disruptions in connectivity were common and, prompted by security concerns, the principal network provider Libyana disconnected SIM cards held by foreigners. However, despite suffering significant infrastructural damage, the telecommunications network in Libya remained one of the more robust in the region.

Post the reconciliation shaped by the 'Libyan Political Agreement' ("LPA") between rival factions and militias across the country, certain developments have provided cause for optimism. The efforts of the Government of National Accord ("GNA") based in Tripoli have been aimed primarily at rebuilding severed networks between the eastern and western regions of the country and also at upgrading Libya's digital infrastructure to attract investment. These areas of progress are important for two reasons: first, it aims at restoration of critical communication infrastructure that was destroyed or deactivated during hostilities and second, it is reflective of a transformed regulatory environment that is welcoming of new technologies. Salient areas of improvement in this respect, some noted in a 2019 report by a telecommunication research company, are as below:

  • Extension of long term evolution 4G wireless communication service to Benghazi and Misrata;
  • Signing of USD 80 million contract with Arabsat to provide satellite broadband services;
  • Contracts entered into with Nokia and Ericsson to build a national mobile broadband network;
  • Launch of a mobile payment service;
  • Contract signed to build a 1,000 kilometre sub-sea cable connecting Tripoli with Benghazi;
  • Launch of 4G services in certain parts of the country; and
  • Libya Telecom and Technology Company entered into a cooperation agreement to better facilitate access to public services for Libyan citizens.

Moreover, there has been a marked shift in the economy of the communications sector. Under the Gaddafi regime, digital networks (telecommunications and internet) were under government control with little to no space created for private players. The only competition that previously existed was between government companies. However, the present GNA dispensation has taken steps to open this sector up to much-needed private investment. In the post-LPA era, 25 internet service providers and 23 VSAT satellite communication operators have been granted licenses to enable a fair, effective and competitive market vis-à-vis government entities.

In order to ensure that these reforms are structural in nature, two proposals may be considered by the GNA. First, Libya had proposed a new telecommunications statute that some argued would give succour to the sector. This legislation was proposed in 2014 by the Ministry of Communications and Informatics, which had appointed a committee to draft the act, set standards for the sector and establish an independent regulatory body, the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority. The GNA needs to provide greater clarity on the status of this proposed legislation and also release drafts for wider public consultation. The consultative process will allow for key stakeholders to be heard and their issues addressed before the enactment of the law. This will ensure that the regulatory climate in which the reforms take place is predictable, respectful of civil liberties and attractive to foreign investment. Second, Libya has announced a spate of projects and investments in the recent past. For instance, in 2018, Libyan Post Telecommunications and Information Technology Company ("LPTIC"), the holding company of Libya's government mobile operators, communication, real estate and postal companies, announced a USD 1.7 billion plan involving multiple projects to improve connectivity and enhance digital infrastructure in the country. A core aspect of the plan was to merge six of the non-mobile subsidiaries in the conglomerate into a single corporate entity. Several other projects - the contract with Arabsat, high speed mobile wireless projects and last mile connections across Libya - have also been announced. The GNA will need to proceed with the implementation of these projects both in a timely manner and irrespective of potential possible political changes. While relatively stable since the end of the civil war, Libya still has two warring factions that are jostling for control over territory - one located in the east of the country with Tobruk as its capital and that has the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the other being the UN-recognized GNA. Tensions between the factions have peaked, peace holding for now due to the ceasefire declared on January 12th. Therefore, the revival of Libya's digital and communications infrastructure through these projects will need to be immune from political upheavals in order to be durable.

The 2015 LPA marked the end of widespread conflict in Libya. While the existing GNA does face opposition from militia and certain factions of the Tripoli-based House of Representatives, it is presented with an opportunity to overhaul Libya's communications networks in a transparent manner that is consistent with international standards. The extent to which this opportunity is capitalised on will script Libya's digital footprint for the next decade.

[This post is authored by Varun Baliga, a consultant working with Ikigai Law, with inputs from Nehaa Chaudhari, Director (Public Policy), Ikigai Law]

Originally published 25 February 2020

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