Austin’s Zello Finds Itself Key Tool Among Venezuela Protestors

An Austin startup is playing a starring role in anti-government protests in Venezuela.

Zello, an app that essentially allows walkie-talkie style communication on a smartphone, was already a popular app in the South American country. But on Friday, CEO Bill Moore says he noticed a severe drop in users. The Venezuelan government had blocked the service.

“We issued an update [to unblock the service,]” he says. “It looks like they just blocked it again, but it’ll be simple for us to unblock, to play the cat and mouse game with them.”

Venezuela’s state-owned internet provider, CANTV, blocked Zello in the country after two weeks of unrest and demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro. At about 7 pm CST Monday, Zello tweeted to followers: “The app was blocked by CANTV again about 2 hours ago, but we should be back now (restart your app, don’t re-install).”

Zello was founded in 2011 using technology developed by Moore’s co-founder Alexey Gavrilov in St. Petersburg, Russia. The company offers corporate subscriptions to companies like Yellow Freight and Ikea as a replacement for two-way radio devices. A majority of its 53 million users, however, are individuals across the globe, including in turbulent spots like Venezuela, Ukraine, and Brazil.

Zello’s popularity with anti-government protesters—it was heavily used in Egypt in 2011 during the Tahrir Square uprising against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak—has been an unexpected market niche, Moore says. “Looking back, it makes sense,” he says. “It’s also used by law enforcement, security organizations, and some military organizations.”

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