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Local technology behind enemy lines
Sacramento Business Journal
November 2, 2001

Eddie Maalouf is on the phone Tuesday morning from 40 miles outside of Kabul, Afghanistan.

He's calling his boss at PacSat in Sacramento -- the local company that provides TV networks with satellite connections -- and his voice is as clear as if it were a local call. He's already had a long day. While it's 10 a.m. here, it's 11 p.m. there. He's coughing a lot.

"The air's filled with powdered dust and you breathe that. I think I have bronchitis," says Maalouf, 42, a native of Lebanon who has lived in the United States for 25 years. Unfailingly polite, he says "excuse me" after each coughing bout.

He and 10 others on his CNN crew, along with a crew from NBC -- 20 technicians in all -- have just completed a stupendous 350-mile trek. Maalouf says it amounted to an eight-day spiritual journey.

Especially in the icy thin air of snowy Anjaman Pass at 14,665 feet in the southern flank of the Himalayas. That's where they began their descent into the Panjsheer Valley.

It was a truck and car caravan. Maalouf's truck was packed with 2,600 pounds of portable satellite equipment owned by PacSat, worth $750,000. CNN had hired PacSat to set it up 45 miles north of Kabul so it can transmit news.

By Tuesday afternoon, they were on the air, beaming reports to television networks around the world, from one of the world's most dangerous places.

Deploying for video: The world needs to see what's going on in Afghanistan, and news organizations are risking life and limb to get the job done.

PacSat's unit is one of two that CNN has inside northern Afghanistan, says Greg Alvarez, senior manager of satellites and circuits at CNN's Atlanta headquarters. CNN has deployed four other portable dishes in the region, leased from two other European services besides PacSat.

"Now we have it pretty much covered," Alvarez says.

CNN's first video coverage came by satellite video phones beginning on Sept. 24. The feeds were scratchy. But with all the satellite dishes deployed now, he adds, "they are getting some decent shots of the air campaign on the front lines."

News organizations have had a tough time setting up portable satellite dishes in Afghanistan, says John Robinson, operations manager for the broadcast division of London-based Associated Press Television News, a video news service which produces and sells news footage to broadcast companies. He estimates there are now "three or four" portable satellite dishes inside Afghanistan, and one of them is CNN's PacSat unit. His company has three in Pakistan and one in Northern Afghanistan.

There's been talk in the industry that portable satellite dishes will be made obsolete by video satellite phones, Robinson says, but the experience in Afghanistan shows the technology is not there yet. "The video quality is pretty crappy, isn't it?"

Most networks have bought their own portable satellite units, says Rich Wolf, vice president of telecommunications for ABC News in New York City. But it's "a business decision" whether to hire a contractor like PacSat. And part of that decision has to do with the danger of the mission.

"It's not just hardware," Wolf says. "It's technicians, operators and maintenance people."

It's an understatement to say the logistics of setting up inside Afghanistan are tough, Robinson says. "You have to fly in (to a neighboring country), then drive over the mountains, bring generators, food, and buy fuel on the black market," he says. "It's not easy."

Once in, you have to keep the technical crews supplied. "There's no way of getting supplies there, so we have to try to get helicopters."

A long, scary road: The journey of Maalouf and his crew took eight days of bone-jarring driving over high-mountain donkey trails. These trails -- also used for opium bound for Europe via Turkey, where it is refined into heroin -- were not made for vehicular traffic. The opportunity to drive into an abyss is constant.

And that was just part of the fun.

Maalouf and his men had regular run-ins with heavily armed local village warlords. They demanded both rides and "taxes" -- cash bribes -- in exchange for passage on their paths. And Northern Alliance soldiers demanded rides at gunpoint to get closer to their destinations.

They were given rides.

On Monday, Maalouf and his CNN compadres arrived at their setup site, a lower mountain village called Javal Faraj at 4,700 feet of elevation.

It's primitive. No electricity. No toilets. A case of Pepsi, brought in from Pakistan, costs $20. The crew is staying in a walled compound that had been the domain of an assassinated Northern Alliance leader.

Maalouf set up the satellite gear, dusting it off for CNN to transmit news footage. And he's made daily satellite phone briefings to PacSat president Steve Mallory.

Mallory, who covered the Israeli attacks on Beirut 20 years ago as a correspondent for NBC News, knows the adrenaline rush of being in the middle of a war zone. And a part of him misses it.

"I'm half envious," he says after hearing Maalouf's descriptions of his nerve-rattling journey. "I could handle two or three days of that. But eight days..."

Cancel that workers' comp: Mallory hired Maalouf 13 years ago, shortly after Mallory, a veteran TV newsman, first formed PacSat in Sacramento. Maalouf had been working as a cameraman at KCRA-Channel 3.

As they were planning the trip to Afghanistan a few weeks ago, Mallory checked to see if Maalouf would be covered under the company's worker's compensation insurance. He was assured it was covered.

Two weeks ago, Maalouf's journey began. He flew PacSat's 12 cases worth of satellite equipment from Sacramento to London, where he met Mallory, who was on his way home from a conference.

After they parted ways, Mallory came home to Sacramento last week and was greeted with a cancellation notice on the company's entire policy.

"Un-American," Mallory fumed, planning to complain loudly.

It's a tough year to have to deal with balky insurers.

After watching revenue grow every year since the company was founded in 1987, PacSat has seen a 20 percent drop in revenue this year. The company also does advertising post-production work, and the advertising business has been hit hard. Mallory had to lay off four employees, cutting his staff to 35. He canceled an investment in new studio equipment. And in April, he moved his company from the Senator Hotel to a 17,000-square-foot former state office at 17th and S streets, nearly tripling his space while cutting his rent.

After the Gulf War, he invested in the portable satellites as a way to allow the company to sell satellite uplink services anywhere news breaks. He now sees the portable satellite business as a way to cushion the blow of falling revenue from the advertising side of the business.

Maalouf is Mallory's "chief techno wizard." He is the only employee Mallory feels comfortable enough with to send on treks through dangerous territory with a lot of expensive satellite equipment.

A seasoned veteran of global hot spots, Maalouf worked in the Gulf War, spent three years in Sarajevo in the early '90s and has experience working in the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Besides, he grew up amid warlike conditions in Beirut.

Mallory also knows Maalouf is adept at turning down the heat in potentially violent situations. He speaks several languages, including Arabic, French and Serbo-Croatian, and has a knack for picking up local dialects after a couple weeks.

And so, from London two weeks ago Maalouf flew on to Moscow with the equipment, then to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where he obtained visas and found out it would be impossible to fly the gear in by helicopter. Trucking it along the southward route, over the foreboding mountains, was the only way.

He rented a massive five-ton Russian truck, a car and two drivers, and met up with four CNN staffers. He packed the truck with satellite gear, a lot of food and even some live chickens. On Sunday, Oct. 21, their eight-day sojourn began.

What he saw: "Really there is no road. In some cases, it's just a donkey trail," Maalouf says. "We could go no more than 60 to 70 kilometers a day. We were driving through rivers, canyons and small trails carved into the side of the mountains."

At times, he says, the crew got out of the cars and walked while the vehicles were carefully driven through tight spots, putting them perilously close to heartstopping drop-offs.

"It's a primitive, challenging place," he says. "Every village has its own local law and order group. They will stop your vehicle and charge what they call taxes to pass through their village. We encountered armed soldiers who boarded the truck to get a ride. They would have shot out our tires if we had tried to get through their village. Our driver was shot at when he didn't stop."

When the truck did stop, the soldiers "leveled machine guns at him. We thought they were going to kill him, but we managed to diffuse the situation.

"You encounter these situations like 20 to 30 times a day. You run into different people, groups, soldiers; each one wants a ride or taxes. You try to diffuse it and give them what they want. You can run away, but you won't get far. They demand cash from you and you have to pay it. It's sort of a form of extortion."

Nights were spent in primitive quarters in small villages. In one case, the 20 technicians shared a 10-foot-by-10-foot room, all crunching for space in their sleeping bags. "In some places they literally moved donkeys out to give us space," he says.

Food at one village was "rice and something. We all drank shots of vodka to make sure it was dead." Dinners occasionally were barbecued chicken.

"You've got to have tenacity and drive to do something like this." He and a fellow technician from CNN made a spiritual pilgrimage out of it. "That's what got us through. You see all the primitive things and experience it; it is in a lot of ways a very spiritual experience. Especially when you're up to nearly 15,000 feet. Perhaps the thin air helps."

On the road down to the Panjsheer Valley, Maalouf says, "the road was littered with hundreds of blown up tanks" from Russia's ill-fated war.

Tuesday he turned on the portable satellite dish for CNN's footage.

Mallory will send in a replacement for him in a few weeks. The toughest part of the job is done -for now.

"I'm going to try to get a helicopter ride out of here," says Maalouf, married and the father of three. "I hope to be home by Thanksgiving."