Update from the frontline: A second interview with Sebastian Meyer

Photojournalist Robert Capa once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

That does not seem to be the problem for freelance photojournalist and co-founder of Metrography, Sebastian Meyer as you can see from the following video. In fact, sometimes it looks like he has gotten a bit too close.

We had the chance to meet up with Sebastian recently in Iraq to ask him about the communication challenges he’s faced and how mobile satellite communications, including Thuraya IP terminal are instrumental in helping him share his photographs with news outlets around the world.

Breaking the news is big business for journalists around the world in today’s extremely fast-paced information ecosystem.

He echoes the sentiments of journalists today, saying, “I’ve used satellite communications before and the freedom and reliability it brings is extremely useful. It can make the difference between breaking a news story and missing it. Or it means you can take part in an interview and not worry about the power going out just when you are going on air!”

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Thuraya and IEC Telecom

Earlier this month, Thuraya and our Service Partner, the IEC Telecom Group hosted over two dozen delegates from across eight different world leading relief organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) among others in one of the team’s largest roadshows in Geneva.

The roadshow showcased Thuraya and IEC’s emergency preparedness equipment as well as thought leadership in mobile satellite services for Thuraya ReliefComms. Crisis, whether man-made or natural can strike at any time and relief organizations as well as service providers have to be ready to act immediately for recovery operations. Businesses must also have a continuity plan in place to protect their employees as well as their business. 

“The communications landscape for NGOs and humanitarian organizations has evolved a lot since we started working with Thuraya. Where before, organizations were more focused on disaster recovery, today, organizations are looking for customized solutions and equipment that are tailored to their specific needs in emergency preparedness. They are also looking to do more on extremely tight budgets. It’s not just about working in on the frontlines in disaster situations but ensuring that the lines of communication remain strong throughout the period of recovery,” said Erwan Emilian, Chief Executive Officer of IEC Telecom Group.

While Thuraya demonstrated its products such as the Thuraya XT, Thuraya IP+ and others, IEC Telecom Group showcased its leading edge solutions that are designed to work with these products to empower organizations cope with emergencies as it happens and afterwards. It’s a decade long-partnership that has seen Thuraya and IEC Telecom Group grow from strength to strength.

“In addition to developing world-class, innovative products, Thuraya’s advantage is that its products are easy-to-use and come with cost effective call packages that are well-suited to the humanitarian sector,” he added

Najwa Ayoub, Market Development Manager for NGOs at Thuraya concurs, “Emergency preparedness is a vital part of relief communications. Thuraya is committed to working with international non-governmental organizations to provide them with equipment and solutions that provide ongoing critical connectivity for both aid workers and the communities they serve.”

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Notes from Adrian Hayes’ Travel Diary: Recuperation at K2 Base Camp

Here’s more news from the British Explorer, Adrian Hayes…

Adrian is doing well. He is resting and recuperating at the base camp, after spending an accelerated five days climbing and acclimatizing at Camps 1 (6,100m) and 2 (6,700m) - conditions at the latter were particularly grueling. The team spent a longer time up the mountain than anticipated, and is ready for the big push to the summit this week. The climb may take approximately five days.


On the slopes of K2

The group will spend another four days at Base Camp but this could go onto ten days, depending on the weather.  Adrian is in good spirits though, he writes, “K2 continues to loom 3,600m above us here at Base Camp, unable to avoid hypnotically gazing at its foreboding sides.”

 
Undaunted by the steep ascent

Throughout the journey, Adrian is using the Thuraya IP broadband terminal and the Thuraya SatSleeve adaptor for the iPhone to record the adventures on his site, www.adrianhayes.com and social media. The equipment was provided to him by Thuraya’s UAE service partner, Xtra-Link.

 
The team at the mercy of an unexpected alpine storm

Adrian Hayes is part of a six-man British/Canadian/Nepali team brought together by Seven Summits Trekking of Nepal (K2 has no relation to the so-called ‘Seven summits’ of the World).

The team comprises Lakpa Sherpa (Nepal), Al Hancock (Canada), Adrian Hayes (UK), Chheji Nurbu Sherpa, Ngima Dorjee Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa (all Nepal). They are climbing the mountain from the Pakistan side, via the Abruzzi Spur, the ‘normal’ route up the mountain but which is anything but normal with vertical or near vertical climbing, rock fall and other hazards.

Thuraya wishes the group a safe and successful ascent, all the way to the top!

For more information, please visit www.adrianhayes.com. You may also follow Adrian Hayes on Twitter and Facebook.

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Thuraya comes to the rescue of 2 Emiratis lost in the desert

Sometimes things done out of habit prove to be lifesavers in disguise. This was true in the case of the two UAE nationals who lost their way in Rub’ al Khali (or the Empty Quarter) on the UAE – Saudi Arabia border. The Empty Quarter is the deadliest and driest desert on earth. As luck would have it, they had a Thuraya XT satellite phone on standby.


Source: Emirates247.com

The duo was heading for a desert location called Umm Qurun, a Saudi border guard spokesman said in a press statement. The men were located on Thursday, June 27, after they had been reported missing the previous day. One of them later said they had expected to perish in the desert.


Source: Emirates247.com

The Emiratis had strayed 350 kilometers into the desert before their car ran out of fuel. According to Saudi newspapers, border guards found them inside their Lexus car, trying to dodge a bad sandstorm that was raging in the area.


Source: Emirates247.com

Rub’ al Khali, which covers 650,000 sq. km, is the largest sand desert in the world, encompassing much of the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula across Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen. During summer, it is a veritable death-trap with temperatures frequently soaring past 50 degrees Celsius.

Thuraya's robust satellite network provides coverage in the most remote locations, ensuring congestion-free satellite communications to keep users connected at all times. The Thuraya XT satellite phone is one of the world’s most durable satellite phones and features external casings made of the latest hi-tech polycarbonate material.

Thuraya XT
Thuraya XT - Reliable. Always.

What makes the Thuraya XT phone truly unique is its SOS feature, enabling users to utilize emergency services whenever and wherever required. In remote areas that are outside GSM coverage, Thuraya SOS uses GPS technology to reliably pinpoint caller location and notify the nearest emergency service and pre-selected contacts. The phone’s durable battery provides up to 6 hours of talk-time and 80 hours of standby time.

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A battle of the bands? Thuraya’s Kyle Hurst makes the case for L-band

Thuraya MarineComms Market Development Director Kyle Hurst took part in the recent GVF Maritime Europe forum in London

Standing up at a VSAT Forum, on a program heavy with presentations about High Throughput Satellite (HTS) services to make the case for L-band might sound highly contrarian, but to Thuraya’s Kyle Hurst it is a story that still needs telling.

Setting out to present a different angle on the conversation – sometimes the argument – that tends to take place around frequency and maritime bandwidth demand, Hurst's intention was not to take away from the potential of HTS but to offer some alternate perspectives.

“I'm not here to try and disprove anything about HTS throughput, but I want to give more of a bottom up view in this debate, which is to focus on the people on the ground and what they actually want,” he said.

For more than 30 years, L-band has been the maritime industry’s communications backbone. That is in part because other options were limited but also Hurst contended, L-band has flourished for very positive reasons.

“L-band is highly reliable, it’s a very tolerant technology with less complexity in the antennas and below decks equipment than VSAT which demands much greater pointing accuracy at the satellite to make the connection. Making more complex technologies as robust as L-band is possible but it means you inherit cost, which doesn’t make you popular in maritime,” he argued.

Throughput is both L-band’s advantage and its Achilles heel. The Thuraya maritime broadband service can achieve 444kbps to a 30cm antenna making it simple, cost effective and easy to install. However L-band throughput capacity is pretty much capped at half a megabit and begins to look slow when compared to the multi-megabits per second promised by HTS.

But Hurst said his experience talking to customers was that though they are interested in new technologies, there is both a natural caution on costs and a realization that HTS has everything to prove.

“I believe that most demand right now is still well within the capability of L-band. I was talking to a shipping company executive recently who is using about 200 megabytes per month on a vessel.  We talked about HTS and his response was that he wanted to keep the costs the same but send higher quality photos, bigger spreadsheets and maybe some database dumps. There are still a lot of people out there who have very conservative demands.”

Such requirements, as well as burgeoning machine to machine services can easily be handled by L-band. Even with the management of more systems moving from the vessel to the shore, optimization of the signal, better compression and caching means most requirements could be handled with existing bandwidth, he said.

Hurst noted a similar pattern discernible in crew calling, often talked of as the main driver to VSAT and HTS demand. Ask a crew member if they want free broadband and the answer will be always be yes. Ask whether they are prepared to pay and they immediately ask how much.

“My question is how much of this is demand and how much is hype?  I think the main point about the real price of L-band is what people are willing to pay. There is an awful lot of marketing out there but I think the main concern from the maritime community is what is it going to cost not just when it launches, but in the future because you can't just invest in this kind of technology for a year.”

Within a few years, a market that supported just a handful of operators will see new ones join the fray and existing ones release new services, supply at a time when the industry is still emerging from downturn. The risk also exists that some new entrants could leave the market if they struggle to make headway, stranding users with unsupported technology.

Hurst thinks that creates uncertainty in the minds of shipowners about what HTS is capable of and the value it can deliver. The experience of previous broadband offerings is that early adopters move will lead the charge with the rest prepared to wait for the technology to bed in.

“I think it's really up to the greater part of the market to decide based on real demand from merchant vessels, what is the best method of different types of communication,” he adds. “For day to day business we are well within L-band’s functional limits. For the crew, perhaps we need something different. The most important factor here is that the industry should be asked what it wants, rather than being told what it needs.”

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High performance – Thuraya connects Laila Peak climbers to the world

It is seldom necessary to ask mountaineers why they choose to take on the great peaks. Asked why he wanted to scale Everest, legendary British climber George Mallory reportedly replied “because it’s there”, which seemed all the explanation required. Climbing retains its allure of challenge and endurance but those of us at ground level are these days much closer to the experience.

When a team led by Ramon Portilla decided to attempt Laila Peak, one of the centrepieces of the Karakoram range in northwest Pakistan, they opted to do so in winter for the first time. This not only made the climb more complex and potentially dangerous, it also called for better communications than used previously.

At around 6,200m Laila might not be the highest peak of the range, but it is both one of most beautiful and most challenging.

Watch Expedition Video:

“Laila Peak is a technically difficult climb because its sections are so varied,” says Javier Álvaro Palomares, Director of Salomba Ventures. “For example, we had to cross a long slope of more than 45 degrees for 800 vertical metres. Conditions at the base camp are around minus 20 degrees. When we reached the summit, winds were 40 kilometres an hour at minus 35 degrees but are often much worse. In summer it’s one kind of mountain, in winter it’s completely different.”

The team of six experienced mountaineers were joined by two technical and image support staff who would help keep the group in contact with the world and capture video and stills footage.

To make sure that they could update supporters around the world as well as share progress with social media and news outlets, the team needed reliable communications. They turned to Thuraya and service partner Satlink for support, who sponsored the team with Thuraya XT handheld satellite phones and a Thuraya IP satellite modem.

The Thuraya equipment was there for more than just media duty. It also provided a vital link to detailed weather forecasting information that would equip the climbers with the information they needed to make decisions that could affect their safety.

 

Thuraya on Laila Peak

“In these winter conditions, where you only have a few weeks of available climbing it’s essential to keep the team safe. We have used Thuraya mobiles on previous climbs but having the Thuraya IP meant we could receive really precise weather forecasts every day,” says Javier.

“We worked with a meteorologist in Spain who was in contact every day with the European Centre for Weather Forecasts and he was able to email the team data on the weather at the base camp and at camps one and two.”

This precise level of data meant that the climbers were able to make better decisions in a shorter time. That enabled them to start out in bad weather knowing it would improve, as well as staying put when the forecast told them the weather would worsen in coming hours and days.

The team also used the Thuraya XT units to communicate between the camps, much more effective than the walkie-talkies climbers commonly rely on. And it wasn’t all one-way traffic. The climbers measured the wind speeds and temperatures on the mountain and relayed it back to Spain, enabling the meteorologist to compare weather models to real conditions, further improving the accuracy of forecasting.

Thuraya on Laila Peak

“We were able to improve data gathering but the main focus was the safety of the team. Without that forecast, they could have put themselves at great risk. We could not always rely on the walkie-talkies but the Thuraya mobiles gave us a guaranteed connection which really improved the margin of safety,” he adds.

Team member Juanjo San Sebastian first came to the Karakoram range 30 years ago to attempt K2. At that time he says, using satellite communications was unimaginable. “We used to have the news delivered by a postman once a month. Now we have precise weather forecasts and can keep in contact with our families.” He also kept in touch with colleagues back home, sending pictures to the marketing department of his employer – a financial institution whose logo is a mountain range.

The team was also able to update social media feeds from base camp, sending images and news from the climb as well as video footage compiled on a weekly basis. Communications Specialist David Perez set up Wi-Fi network to enable multiple team members to connect to their iPhones with no loss in data rate. In very bad weather the team had to leave the Thuraya IP modem outside while they were inside their tent shelter, with no ill effects.

Thuraya on Laila Peak

Sebastian Alvaro has been organising and leading expeditions to extreme locations for 30 years.

He says the ability to connect with supporters as well as the team’s friends and family played an important role in boosting recognition and morale on this ascent.

“We have used satellite communications on other expeditions but our experience is that Thuraya has given us the best service in terms of quality and reliability. Not all the team were technical experts but they all found the Thuraya XT and IP simple to set up and use.”

Further expeditions are planned and Sebastian says the climbing team knows it can rely on Thuraya equipment whatever the conditions.

“Before the ascent of Laila Peak we wondered how the equipment would cope on the mountain but it worked perfectly with no breakdowns. The places we visit range from desert to the coldest places on earth. It’s hard on us and very hard for the equipment too. The pioneers had to rely on intuition, improvisation and looking at the sky when attempting a mountain. Knowing we can rely on Thuraya has changed everything.”

Thuraya on Laila Peak

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Moments on the frontline: A photojournalist’s perspective

Picture a photojournalist, working in Iraq or on assignment across the trouble spots of the Middle East and it creates a very distinct mental impression. Travelling light and moving fast, chasing stories for newspapers, wire services or for his own agency, Sebastian Meyer lives that life.

A veteran of embeds with US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, with stints in Libya and Syria, he admits he began covering the Middle East almost by accident, but that hasn’t stopped him making his own contribution to the region’s future.


Photo courtesy of Sebastian Meyer. Ras Lanuf, Libya: Rebels duck for cover after a pro-Gaddafi jet bombs their position.

And by his own account, it’s not all action, or even all bad news. Sometimes what his agency, Metrography, based in Sulaimaniyah, needs most is reliable communications in order to file the kind of everyday stories – business news, sports, culture – that feed demand in print and online.

The reliability piece gets a little easier from this year as Meyer has been sponsored by Thuraya and The Rory Peck Trust with a Thuraya IP+ broadband satellite terminal. This small, light high performance unit will be going in the kit bag to give the Metrography team an edge on filing stories, whatever their location.

“My camera bag is getting bigger these days but the Thuraya terminal is tiny so it fits in,” he laughs. “I file regularly for Voice of America where I’m cameraman, producer and reporter in one. Now using the Thuraya I could do a live piece, which is something I haven’t been able to do before.”

Meyer got to where he is the long way around, studying in the US and Europe before being exposed to the work of legendary photo agency Magnum and having something of an epiphany. “I had never heard of Magnum or even of photojournalism but I had a light bulb moment. Suddenly I knew what I was going to do with rest of my life,” he says.

Further teaching was followed by intern stints at Magnum and work for agencies and local press in New York City and Manchester, England all of which he says “was honing my craft, but failing to find a way to get paid to travel round world taking pictures”.

That is until the father of a friend, making a documentary about the 1988 Al-Anfal genocide asked him to take photographs for a museum that he'd been commissioned to build in Northern Iraq. Meyer first visited the country in 2008 and decided to stay after going back in 2009, tempted by the booming economy and plenty of work. It was only when a colleague suggested starting a local agency that the last piece fell into place.

“Iraq is a country like and unlike any other. They have musicians and athletes, culture and social activities. You don’t have to deal with bombs and explosions though that happens too,” he explains. “Our idea was to start an agency that could train local photographers to do the kind of thing that all photographers know how to do.”

As a result, the international press is already turning to local journalists, photographers and film-makers to tell those stories. Meyer says the Metrography’s work has to stand on its own merits, not just because it is easier for the foreign press to use local freelancers.

Meyer meanwhile continues to pursue his passions, shooting more and more video, a function he says of personal preference and market demand. Bigger budgets and improved technology have seen plenty of photographers move to the medium but he enjoys the process of film-making and the narrative element of documentary too.

It also increases the demand for reliable communications, hence the Thuraya IP+. For while power and internet infrastructure exist in northern Iraq, their unreliability makes filing problematic.

“I’ve used satellite communications before and the freedom and reliability it brings is extremely useful,” he says. “It can make the difference between breaking a news story and missing it. Or it means you can take part in an interview and not worry about the power going out just when you are going on air!”

Thuraya’s asymmetric IP streaming capability means Meyer can also consider requests to do live pieces to camera or over audio without needing a studio. When time permits he plans a trip to southern Iraq to get Iraqi youngsters online with their western counterparts to share experiences.

As may be obvious already, Meyer does not fit the template of the buccaneering photojournalist, though he happily admits to being in ‘life and death’ incidents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya when he came ‘awfully close to getting hurt’.

Even so, he says the process can also be mundane. Around Benghazi in Libya, the manner of the fighting afforded a relative routine.

“Every morning a bunch of us would get up meet at a hotel for breakfast and see what the vibe was that day. Then we’d jump in a car and drive an hour and a half to the front line. The fighting normally kicked off around mid-day so we’d photograph that, then dusk came and it would die down and we’d get back in the car, drive home have dinner and go to bed.

“There’s a quote from the American Civil War that describes soldiering as 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror and that really is true,” he adds. “It was literally like commuting to work. As the story came and went from the front pages we’d ask ourselves every day, do I want to go to the front line and put myself at greater risk?”

Even so, he doesn’t make light of those risks nor of the suffering of those in Libya, Syria or his adopted home, where violence continues to scar the country. “It does mean you are telling an extremely important story and sometimes putting your life at risk as well as putting your family through hell. It’s a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously.”

To learn more about Sebastian Meyer and his work, visit www.sebmeyer.com.
For more information about the Rory Peck Trust, visit www.rorypecktrust.org.

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