The Afghanistan Experience

(click thumbnail)This was the only anti-American display the author saw on his way to Tora Bora.TORA BORA, AFGHANISTAN

Nearly three months after the tragic events of Sept. 11, Dec. 3 seemed like just another news day on the rooftop of the Islamabad Marriot Hotel. My thoughts of covering ‘Ground Zero' seemed like a distant memory.

For our NBCNews teams, we had filed many live reports from this location in Pakistan and the dynamics of the story were changing. The operation here was becoming an expensive and exhausting ordeal. The decision came down to move the flyaway earth station and mobile newsroom operation to a house not far from the hotel. As a news operation, the move gave us a long-term presence in the city with signifcant cost savings.


In prepping for the move, I had the house pre-wired with line-conditioned 220 V electrical drops serving as technical power for the production sets and newsroom. We tapped available 30-amp breakers on existing utility panels and installed sub-panel breaker boxes with manual transfer switches outside for our portable generators. The transition worked smoothly with only a few power issues to work out.

(click thumbnail)Shown is the redesigned NBC control room in Islamabad's "E-7" sector.
The Advent 1.9-meter antenna, ETM 400-watt transmitters and associated Grass Valley video equipment worked flawlessly with the new setup, however extreme environmental conditions prevailed, ushering in choking dust, heat and vehicle emissions, not to mention spectacular monsoon thunderstorms with winds so intense they blew us off the air at times. Unannounced city power outages created hard transmitter shutdowns that became a real technical concern with the TWTA (traveling wave tube amplifier) core temperatures peaking at maximum in the intense heat.

Despite the harsh conditions, the reliability of the equipment was excellent, with only routine maintenance required – and that dependability became even more important as news of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts surfaced in eastern Afghanistan. As it sometimes happens with spontaneous breaking news, we had everything nicely in place in Pakistan, but this was to be our next destination.

Throughout the region, the NBC News flyaways held the load of the network news programming by multiplexing MCPC carriers through NDS 5425 Encoder modulators. The antenna was focused on SEASAT, a Eutelsat-owned satellite at 36 degrees east occupying 18 MHz of total bandwidth on a full-time leased transponder.

The NBC Islamabad link budget was initially set up for two MCPC paths with the extra capacity for three carriers to be added later, according to NBC engineer Simon Brown.

"By doing this, we had built-in redundancy for available digital voice and data communications when necessary," Brown said. "The space was shared with the Kabul and Kandahar uplinks and simple frequency offsets slotted the communication carriers right along side the main carriers."

The material was then transmitted to the London teleport, shipped to the NBC News London Bureau via a fiber-link and re-transmitted on Telstar 12 for the final hop to the MSNBC Satellite Operations Center in New Jersey.

(click thumbnail)Producer Rick Stockwell, cameraman Craig White and Ashleigh Banfield set up for "A Region in Conflict" from the Islamabad Marriott.

When word came down to head to Afgahnistan two days later on Dec. 5, we mobilized immediately with news. Our destination was a desolate region known as Tora Bora. To get there we had to cross the Khyber Pass, where the Indian subcontinent meets Central Asia, with historic significance dating back to the time of Alexander the Great.

The thought of taking the flyaway through the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan and into the pass was symbolic in nature, leaving everyone in awe of what we were about to do. Incredible vistas of the Hindu Kush Mountains rose over the outskirts of Peshawar as we drove the gear to the first major checkpoint and were greeted with a posted sign that clearly read, "Entry of foreigners prohibited beyond this point." With the help of local "fixers" and armed escorts we were able to move equipment and personnel through the checkpoints and into the forbidden tribal lands.

This was lawless and dangerous territory, where traveling was possible only by daylight, and as journalists we became targets. We arrived at the village of Torkham, a border town that seemed locked in the Middle Ages. From there stretched out before us were the gates of Afghanistan.

Once inside, we continued towards Kabul on the Grand Truck Highway, a winding and dangerous two-lane road connecting Pakistan with Afghanistan. Passing other vehicles on this road becomes a game of "chicken" with on-coming motorists, sometimes with severe consequences. We arrived in Jalalabad, a once-bustling town that had been so war-torn in the Soviet conflict, many parts of the city were reduced to jagged fragments of mud re-enforced walls.

About two hours away were Tora Bora, and the cave hideouts of Osama bin Laden. The area was under relentless air attack by the American forces and we were to position ourselves at the front lines, close to the action. We pulled up to the Spinghar Hotel, a re-conditioned building used by the Soviets in the last war. It was just before sundown as we prepared for the last leg of our journey.

(click thumbnail)Rooftop Transmission Center

At first light we hit the road for the final push to Tora Bora. The workload was beginning to take its toll on the crewmembers and myself. Afghanistan is a beautiful, unforgiving land in mid-winter and with the prospect of camping outdoors looming over our heads, this was no time to get run-down and sick.

The conditions did not permit us to take our larger "Loire Truck" on such rough terrain either, so we arranged to off-load all 120 cases of gear and re-load it into nine short-bed Toyota 4-wheel-drive pickups – the preferred vehicles in Afghanistan. At a grueling 20 mph pace, our caravan made the bumpy ride south to the village of Mira, tucked away in the foothills of the White Mountains. Our compound, the local residence of Haji Zahir, the Mujahideen warlord general and his pack of Afghan soldiers, was about five kilometers from the front lines.

With the thunder of American bombing raids in the background, we began deploying the equipment for our scheduled feeds that night.

One of the main pieces of gear to get ready was our communications package, or "comms pack." For me, it was one of the outstanding technical highlights of our system, and its performance providing our data transmissions was vital to the success of our operation.

(click thumbnail)The author, right, and engineer Simon Brown enjoy another night of Islamabad room service.
Originally conceived by NBC Technical Manager Lenny Venezia with Peter Ulph, NBC senior satellite communications engineer in London, the system uses RAD multiplexing equipment for "over-the-sky data transport."

"In the past, NBC was spending an enormous amount of money for basic office communications and IFB phone interconnects by using conventional M-4 Satphone technology," said Ulph. "By applying the same principals Lenny used on terrestrial circuits in the U.S., we decided to try it on the satellite, which had never been done before."

They installed a multiplexed system at the BT Teleport in London to support each individual flyaway in the region by using SCPC carriers to set up point-to-point communications, according to Ulph. The duplex carriers occupied about 512 Kb per channel, totaling 650 Khz of space within 2 MHz of bandwidth. The flyaway locations had nine lines of London dial tone with a 386 Kb data channel. To do this, they installed 24 IDD phone lines at BT Teleport and connected an E-1 data line from the London Bureau at 2.048 Mbps – larger than the common T-1 rate of 1.544 Mbps.

From there they set up a hub at BT Teleport to coordinate the field units, which in turn uplinked their individual carriers to BT Teleport, completing the circuit path. The results were tremendous and a much-improved system over the older conventional one, resulting in significant savings for NBC ranging "in the millions," Ulph said.

Despite the hardships of the region, dedication and attention to details, the news coverage of such an historic moment raised the standard of technical excellence to a new plateau industry-wide. Technology such as the videophone became a broadcast norm, bringing the viewer closer to the news than ever before. My admiration for the engineering and production crews at NBC News goes without saying.

The live coverage in Afghanistan is still on going with the same dedicated crews moving equipment and personnel to hotspots all over the country. By all accounts they continue to raise the bar to new levels leaving Tora Bora as just one of many success stories for NBC News in the region.