IT'S easy to tell which fax machine in this downtown Boston store sends faxes to soldiers in the Gulf: the one under the giant yellow ribbon. From this machine in the American Telegraph & Telephone (AT&T) phone center, family and friends can send facsimiles - free of charge - to service people in the Gulf. While mail can take up to three weeks to land in the proper hands, faxes arrive in three days.
``This is the only thing that's getting through over there,'' says Jack Timmerman, a father stopping by on his lunch break to fax a message to his daughter, Jane, a 26-year-old medical aide. ``We want her to know we're thinking about her. My wife and I send her a message at least once a week.''
Mr. Timmerman gives the hand-written message to the sales associate; she feeds it into the machine and presses an automatic dialing button that says simply ``DF,'' Desert Fax. This dials into the AT&T receiving station in Saudi Arabia; the message is then delivered to the service member through the Military Postal Service. The fax number and location are top secret.
Across the United States, 420 AT&T locations are sending overseas about 13,000 messages every day - love notes, kids' drawings, Valentines, prayers, notes from fellow office workers.
The fax service is free to users and recipients. Paul Karoff, public relations director for AT&T, estimates his company has spent $1.5 million on the project since it began last September.
The service has received substantial publicity, including television coverage by the Cable News Network, ABC's Good Morning America, and local affiliates. There has also been ``a significant amount of local coverage'' by print media near military bases, Mr. Karoff says.
Among other Telecommunications firms providing special services in the Gulf is Worldcall 2000, which offers a voice-mail system that soldiers and families can use 24-hours a day. The service is designed to help families get around the time-zone changes and difficulty of reaching loved ones in the Gulf.
``When you're in the theater of war, you never know when you can make a call,'' says George Franklin, chief operating officer of Worldcall 2000, and a Vietnam War veteran. ``If you're on guard duty, for instance, you never know when you'll be let off. It's disappointing to call [the US] and never get anybody, or to get an answering machine, or to get somebody up in the middle of the night, when they're kind of groggy.''
Users rent a voice `mailbox,' based in Newton, Iowa, for $15 a month. Whenever desired they can call and leave up to five two-minute messages; service members can call from Saudi Arabia (or Germany) and, using their social security number, retrieve the messages and leave a three-minute message of their own for the family. Calls can be made from abroad with a long-distance calling card issued by MCI, which adds a $2 surcharge to the regular costs. (Collect calls from Saudi Arabia incur a surcharge of $5.)
``It's the only way you can initiate messages from the US side to the Saudi side. When you place the call, you're always going to get through,'' Mr. Franklin says. So far, almost 100 people have signed up for the service, and he is hoping for corporate sponsors to help defray costs for calls coming from the Gulf.
For British troops, Cable & Wireless is offering phone service on a nonprofit basis, publicized in a recent full-page ad in the Financial Times.
To find the location of the AT&T phone center offering fax service nearest you, call 800-222-0300. For information on Worldcall 2000, call 800-TROOP-LINES.