Article by Peter Maass

Tech Solutions in Far-Out Places

Popular Science  |  October 2004
An ode to the Thuraya 7101 Satphone.

After weeks in the Iraq desert covering the war for the New York Times Magazine, I can say confidently that it is not the place to be lost or hungry. Fortunately, my Thuraya Hughes 7101 satellite phone prevented both.

I’ll get to the culinary trick in a moment, but first some quick background. The Thuraya, which is about the size of a chunky cellphone, has a short antenna that you point at geosynchronous satellites with footprints covering the Middle East, Central and Southern Asia, Europe and much of Africa. Calls to anywhere, from just about anywhere, cost roughly $1 a minute.

Starting with the invasion of Afghanistan, the phone became a vital tool for war reporters. Using a Belkin serial adapter, I connected it to my iBook and filed stories from the oddest places: just down the road from Mullah Omar’s residence in Kandahar, across the Tigris from Saddam Hussein’s main palace. The $800 handset is surprisingly durable. While cars and computers were breaking down around me from the sand and bumpy roads (or lack of roads), the Thuraya never faltered.

During the Iraq invasion, the Marines I followed were reluctant to tell me our locations for security reasons. But the Thuraya can acquire GPS coordinates, so I always knew how far we were from Baghdad. And it was comforting to know that if I got lost driving in the desert (we often moved at night, with our lights out), I could figure out where I was and call the battalion, which would (hopefully) send a Humvee to rescue me.

As for the food: No, I didn’t call for pizza. Everywhere I went, Marines lined up to call home on the Thuraya, and they repaid the favor by keeping my truck stocked full of MREs.