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Videophones answer the call

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

News operations are increasingly turning to lightweight videophones to help them compete in remote or restricted parts of the world where standard communication devices can be virtually useless.
It all started with CNN, which last April blew the doors off the competition when it went live from Hainan, China, during the standoff between Chinese and American officials over a captured U.S. spy plane. Before Chinese officials knew what was happening, CNN used a videophone to capture images of American service people boarding a plane that would take them out of Chinese custody.
The pictures were grainy but riveting, and soon after the videophone was a de rigueur part of the international correspondent’s equipment. “We have fully integrated them into our news-gathering system. No international news organization can compete without them,” said David Verdi, executive director of NBC News.
Bill Tracy, director of ABC broadcast operations and engineering, said, “We had a knee-jerk reaction when we realized that we were caught short.”
ABC quickly bought an off-the-shelf corporate videophone and just as quickly realized it wouldn’t do what the newsroom wanted it to do. So like everybody else, ABC turned to a British company, 7E, which in cooperation with CNN has designed a portable satellite videophone that is about the size and weight of a laptop computer. It links to a camera and a folding satellite dish that is 16 inches in diameter. The whole apparatus can be set up and ready to film in seconds, and the results can be transmitted just as quickly using a car battery for power.
Dick Tauber, VP of satellites and circuits for CNN, recalled: “We’re always telling vendors that we want something small, light, fast, cute, friendly and really inexpensive. I’d say our relationship was similar in this case. They understood our needs and requirements and came up with a product that is very compact, high-compression, very rugged and serviceable in the field and able to be used with our existing gear and equipment.”

Talking Head I, the first phone that 7E developed at CNN’s behest, could only transmit at 64 Kbps. “If you squeezed the picture down to a small insert, you could have a talking head of your reporter in the field. And then you’d surround it with more image that came through earlier of whatever the event was,” Mr. Tauber said.
Since then, 7E has developed a way to add a second satellite phone to the compression package, which allows transmission at the ISDN rate, 128 Kbps, effectively doubling the quality and allowing for full-frame images. Mr. Tauber predicts that it isn’t going to be long before the box will become a disk and the whole setup will be laptop-based, with multiple satellite phones plugging into the laptop.
If you’re thinking of adding these tools to your arsenal, be prepared to shell out a few dollars. The latest version, Talking Head II, sells for just under $10,000. Talking Head I costs less. In either case, transmission requires one or two satellite phones, which cost an average of $7,500 apiece. On top of that you’ll have to add the satellite phone charges, which are at least $6 per minute per phone.
As Mr. Tauber said, “Whatever you had in your budget, it’s not enough, and whatever you spent, you are going to have to spend some more, because the technology just keeps getting better and you have to keep up.”
7E is a London-based company. Richtec of Ocala, Fla., is the North American distributor. So far, 7E doesn’t have much competition. Scotty Tele-Transport Corp, an Austrian company with offices in Norcross, Ga., sells a device that will do much the same thing as 7E, but it’s bulkier. Other technology worth a look comes from Livewire Digital Ltd., located outside of London, and Toko, a Tokyo company with a U.S. headquarters in Mount Prospect, Ill.
Motion Media Technology, the Bristol, England, company that makes the guts for the 7E phone, also sells its own videophones. Stuart Ross, chief technology officer at Motion Media’s Wilmington, N.C., office, says his phones, which cost under $1,500 apiece, are useful for locations where an IP connection is available. MTV used them on “The Real World” to allow housemates on the show to communicate with their parents, and Turkish TV relies on a Motion Media phone for its Washington correspondent’s reports because it’s so much cheaper than satellite time.
The decision to buy one boils down to whether you really need it. So far, Nick Evansky, director of technology for Associated Press Television News, based in London, is probably right when he calls a videophone a “belts and braces device-useful only when our customers will accept the compromise in quality just to have the pictures.”
But as John Stack, VP of news gathering for Fox News Channel, says, “We’re a competitive lot. It’s not a master copy of `Gone With the Wind,’ but when it’s the only game in town, it’s acceptable.”