Technology Makes War Correspondent’s Life Easier

By: Jim Rosenberg

Coming in ever-smaller packages, new tools allow journalists to do their jobs in this Gulf War so much easier than the one 12 years ago — easier, that is, until antenna panels become sails in a fierce sandstorm that picks up and carries away a lightweight satellite phone. “Sandbags seem to be the solution,” says Jeffrey D. Lawrence, information-technology director at Knight Ridder/Tribune (KRT) Information Services.

Comparing the technology used by war correspondents now with the gear used to cover the last war with Iraq, Lawrence recalls that in 1991 photographers lugged the equipment, chemicals, and blow-dryers for makeshift darkrooms, as well as film scanners.

Because reporters and photographers today can “transmit from wherever they are,” says Lawrence, information gets out faster and reaches readers sooner.

Chest-high satellite phones used to cover Operation Desert Storm weighed 50 to 60 pounds and, at about $50,000, were “very, very expensive,” he says. Now, a satellite, or “sat,” phone may be the size of (and be able to function as) a cell phone and weigh less than a pound. A reporter may carry a 1-pound point-and-shoot camera and complete the kit with a 3-pound notebook computer.

For photographers, the digital camera has much more resolution, less weight, less bulk, and a lower price than models even a few years old. “They’re all running digital cameras,” Lawrence says. The flash memory is transferred from the camera back to the laptop, which transmits the image files over the Internet through its sat-phone connection.

In 1991, electronic photography consisted of high-end still-video cameras, which produced lower-resolution analog images that were printed and scanned or transmitted via converters to picture desks — a promising technology made obsolete by the digital developments of the 1990s.

“Our writers have handheld sat phones, and our artists and photographers have ISDN [integrated services digital network] sat phones,” says Detroit Free Press Newsroom Technology Manager A.J. Hartley. Phones using ISDN, notes Lawrence, are “about the size of a laptop” and can move a color-photo file from the desert to D.C. in a minute.

The press was warned that high utilization rates could cause problems getting a satellite connection in the field, but Lawrence says the networks are generally fine, but for “a few hiccups here and there.”

Helping boost capacity, Inmarsat Ltd. has made an Indian Ocean satellite temporarily available for war coverage. Lawrence says that when telecom traffic is heavy, users may easily switch from one to another service provider leasing transponder space on the same satellite.

Then there’s the United Arab Emirates’ Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co., which relies on a geostationary satellite capable of sending signals as far as Africa, Europe, and China. On the market for about six months now, Inmarsat’s 5-pound, $1,500 BGan phone uses the Thuraya network to move data at 144 kilobits per seconds, more than twice the speed, half the weight, and a third of the price of an ISDN phone. The downside — that it’s a regional network — is irrelevant in this war, says Lawrence, but he adds that the device moves only data, not voice. So users also carry handheld sat phones that connect with Thuraya. The upside, however, is that — unlike others, which charge for connection time — Thuraya charges only for the volume of data uploaded. So phones may be left on all the time, providing a waiting connection.

Correspondents dialing the satellite are put right onto the Internet, Lawrence says. From there, a file-transfer-protocol connection requiring relatively little bandwidth drops image files into KRT’s server in Washington. There, each goes into a live queue and is copied to members. “We also send it to our editors as an attachment,” he says.

Journalists working for The Associated Press also use Thuraya, but to avoid its single-satellite system’s congestion, “we bought a bunch of Iridiums” to carry voice and text, says AP News Technology Director Dana Bloch. AP photos (and voice or fax) go up on an ISDN channel to Inmarsat’s system using 16 pounds of Thrane & Thrane hardware. A little larger than a laptop, it consists of a device about the size of an office phone and a three- panel antenna. (The wire service still uses some older Inmarsat Mini-M units, which move voice and data at 2400 baud.)

Using such devices in the field means recharging wherever possible, generally through adapters/converters plugged into vehicles’ power outlets or clamped to their batteries. “There are some people who have solar panels, too, but it’s not very efficient,” says Bloch, pointing out that the trickle-charging can take all day.

Back in Iraq, journalists face the possibility that, as AP headlined it, sat-phone transmissions “could become beacons for bombs.” Correspondents, Lawrence says, are told to “shut off their equipment when the bombing starts … because these phones do emit microwaves.” To provide some measure of protection — whether from ground fire at a visible target or from aerial aiming at an electronic emitter — “we’ve gotten them some very long cables,” allowing journalists to put some distance between themselves and their obvious sat-phone antennae.

(The AP reported this week that the military has banned the use of some sat phones which include global positioning system (GPS) technology, including those using Thuraya’s satellite:

See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.

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