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Volume 22, Number 1January/February 1971

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The Big Signal

Written by Elias Antar

A 12:18 p.m. on June 21, 1970, 112,000 soccer fans in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium rose in hysterical delight as Brazilian soccer king Pele scored the opening goal in his country's 4-1 victory over Italy in the World Cup Final. A fraction of a second later and halfway round the world thousands of Pele's fans in Lebanon did the same—thanks to a new satellite ground station that these days can bring a live telecast from Mexico to the Middle East with the twist of a switch.

The telecast—which viewers in Lebanon said was sharp and clear—gave no hint of the fantastic route it had followed after stadium cameras caught the action and flashed it to a satellite ground station at Tulancingo, 60 miles northeast of Mexico City. From Tulancingo, the TV signal shot 23,000 miles into space to the Intelsat III F6 satellite in stationary orbit above the Atlantic Ocean, bounced another 23,000 miles back to the Raisting ground station in the Bavarian Alps, moved 675 miles by microwave circuit to another satellite ground station at Pleumeur Bodou, on the French channel coast, caromed into space again where the Intelsat III F7 satellite picked it up and transmitted it to Lebanon's Arbaniyeh ground station and the country's two television stations which broadcast the image to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan—all in a fraction of a second.

Although they may not have realized it, the thousands of Lebanese who saw Pele triumph were also witnessing their country's coming of age on the world communications scene, a development which is also true of much of the Arab East. With satellite ground stations already in operation or under construction in four countries and two more planned in a fifth, with submarine cables crisscrossing the seas, and internal links extending rapidly in all the Arab countries, communications are improving at an unprecedented pace. If the pace continues, the next two or three years should see the Arab East firmly hooked into the world communications system and truly fulfilling its potential as an intercontinental communications crossroads.

By virtue of its geographical position and its traditional contacts with many countries, Lebanon is playing a leading role in this development. Lebanon is now being linked with the West through an undersea cable stretching 2,108 miles between Beirut and Marseilles, France, and with the East via its satellite ground station whose dish antenna was to be turned around in early 1971, from the Atlantic satellites, to aim at one over the Indian Ocean. Lebanon is also to be linked to Egypt and Syria via a communications cable, partly underwater and partly underground.

And Lebanon is just a start. In the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain and Kuwait have satellite ground stations locked onto the Indian Ocean satellite, and they themselves are connected by microwave and wireless circuits to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and the rest of the Trucial Coast. Between these two principal outlets, Jordan is putting the finishing touches to a ground station of its own hooked to one of the Atlantic satellites and Saudi Arabia is planning for two ground stations, one on the Red Sea coast at Jiddah and one in the inland capital of Riyadh, 550 miles to the east. Iraq will channel its communications to the West via Kuwait and Lebanon and will use the Kuwait-Bahrain outlet for communications with the East.

When these systems become integrated over the next few years, the peoples of the Arab East will have virtually instant communication with most parts of the world. It will be possible, for instance, for a trader in Dubai to phone a customer in Morocco or Japan. A lawyer in Alexandria will be able to consult with his client in Beirut or Paris without the frustrating delays and technical breakdowns that have been an all too frequent and unfortunate reality in the Arab East thus far.

In keeping with its role as a trend setter, Lebanon inaugurated its $3 million, American-built ground station in September 1969 when its antenna was locked onto the Intelsat III F6 satellite over the Atlantic Ocean—just in time to provide live coverage of the second American moon walk in November. Unfortunately, because of the enormous distances covered, trouble with the TV camera carried by the astronauts and different TV systems in the U.S. and Lebanon, the picture was fuzzy at the edges and affected by interference.

Later the antenna was switched to the F7 satellite over the Atlantic and the system used for the retransmission of the soccer game provided amazingly clear results. Then, when the underwater cable to Marseilles goes into full operation in early 1971, the antenna of the earth station will be turned around to line up with a satellite over the Indian Ocean. In 1972, the government is to build another antenna to be linked to an Atlantic satellite, thus giving Lebanon satellite communications with both East and West, instead of the present combination of satellite and underwater cable.

The ground station, besides being capable of handling TV, can transmit telephone, telegraph and Telex calls with unprecedented clarity. When it went into operation, the quality of voice transmission was found to be so high that radio correspondents based in Beirut were able to broadcast to the U.S. and elsewhere using their house phones instead of the complicated studio arrangements previously utilized. To improve service even further, the government plans to provide television facilities connected to Arbaniyeh permitting TV correspondents to make live news broadcasts. With present communications facilities, it takes 10 or 12 hours for TV film from the Middle East to reach screens in the United States or Europe. Until the second antenna is built, TV broadcasts from Lebanon will be beamed up to the Indian Ocean satellite, down to a ground station near Rome for European distribution and up again over the Atlantic to the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

The cable to Marseilles, shared equally between Lebanon and France, was to have cost $20 million. It was officially inaugurated in August 1970 and when it goes into full operation it will handle 120 voice (phone) channels, later to be increased to 220. One voice channel can accommodate 24 Telex or telegraph channels, but the cable cannot handle TV signals.

Internally Lebanon is also installing an automatic telephone system throughout the country. Already in operation in Beirut and major towns, the system will eventually link most villages by dial telephone via microwave relay stations, which use no wires and provide very clear signals. The country's Telex system, which was the first to go into operation in the Middle East back in 1962, is being expanded to handle 2,000 subscribers by the end of 1971, an increase of 1,550 over present figures.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Egypt and Syria have signed a protocol with Lebanon to lay down a communications cable from Alexandria to Beirut and onwards to Damascus. Bids are now under consideration and the link will take 10 months to construct once a contract has been awarded. Connections between the three countries will be vastly improved in both quality and efficiency, and Egypt and Syria will have instant communications with Europe using the cable from Beirut to Marseilles. There are no plans at present to connect the Alexandria-Beirut-Damascus cable to the Arbaniyeh ground station. The cable is to cost about $6 million, to be shared equally among the three countries.

In cooperation with Italy, Egypt is also building an $8 million, 1,000-mile underwater cable from Alexandria to Catanzaro in southern Italy. The project, scheduled for completion in two years, will provide Egypt with 120 voice channels to Europe and the U.S., later to be increased to 160.

While looking to its links with the rest of the world, Egypt is also constantly expanding its internal telephone net. In the 1920's, Cairo's telephone system had only three digit numbers and the exchange was manually operated by a team of girls. Now the bustling capital of almost five million people has a six-digit automatic dial system which is constantly being extended, though it is still lagging behind the demand for more and more phones.

Syria has launched a five-year plan to develop its communications system. The main element is to be a $30 million underground cable linking Damascus to all the country's main cities to replace the present haphazard system of overhead wires. In addition, Syria is considering a "troposcatter" radio system linking it to Moscow and eventually making it the outlet for all communications between the Arab East, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

In a flat valley ringed by low hills 12 miles north of Amman, Jordan is putting the finishing touches on a Japanese-built ground station costing $4.5 million. It will be aimed at a satellite over the Atlantic Ocean and will allow the country to vastly expand its existing Telex and phone links to London and Rome.

In the Gulf, the huge Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is planning not one but two satellite ground stations to be linked to a satellite over the Atlantic. At first, the two stations will serve to link the two cities viasatellite, an arrangement that is cheaper than a direct microwave system of relay stations on the ground. Later, it is planned to use the stations to provide connections between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. Internally the kingdom has completed nearly 70 percent of a new telephone network in Mecca and was to inaugurate a new 14,000-line automatic telephone network in Jiddah early this year. Riyadh already has 16,000 lines and plans for 24,000 more. The Eastern Province has 10,000 lines in Dammam and Al Khobar and coverage of the rest of the province is planned. By July 1972, the country is also to start operation of an internal Telex network costing $1 million.

Nearby Kuwait, meanwhile, has recently inaugurated a ground station which is linked to a satellite over the Indian Ocean, and provides 24-hour communications with Britain, West Germany, Japan and other countries plus Bahrain, which in turn is linked to other Trucial Coast states. Kuwait, in addition, has Telex lines with Aden, at the southwestern tip of the vast Arabian Peninsula.

Bahrain has also opened a $5 million ground station which is linked to the Intelsat III F3 satellite over the Indian Ocean. Acting as one of the two focal points in the region, Bahrain has microwave links to Qatar, Muscat, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is expanding its internal telephone network at a cost of about $8 million.

Even the emirate of Abu Dhabi, now undergoing a phenomenal boom because of oil revenues, is expanding its communications. It has awarded a $7.2 million contract to install an electronic telephone exchange system that will be one of the most advanced public telephone systems anywhere in the world. The new equipment will expand the present system by 3,000 lines—quite a jump in a country whose total population is only 47,000 people.

In Yemen phone links until a few years ago depended on a ramshackle system inherited from the Ottoman Turkish invaders at the turn of the century. It connected—in a manner of speaking—the twin capitals of Taiz and Sanaa with the port of Hodaidah by a system of wires hung on poles. A goat scratching its back on one of the poles was enough to knock it down and disrupt communications for days. But Yemen recently installed a German-built microwave system between the main cities and a British company is now to supply facilities for phone, Telex and telegraph links to the outside world.

Elias Antar, an AP correspondent in the Middle East, is a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the January/February 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1971 images.