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New technology ready for conflict

Oct 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

As the specter of war in Iraq looms larger every day, television networks are preparing not only to dispatch journalists but also to deploy technological resources to the region. In some cases, the technology represents an improvement over the tools available as recently as a year ago to cover the conflict in Afghanistan.
CBS expects to make strides with new satellite equipment that will allow for crisper pictures. While satellite phones-the technology du jour during the war in Afghanistan-will remain in play, a step up from the video phone will be a “mini-uplink,” said Frank Governale, VP of operations for CBS News. A higher-quality video phone but not a full bandwidth satellite, the mini-uplink can operate in the 2-megabit range with decent quality and more compression.
A full uplink operates at about 8 megabits, while satellite phones run at 64 kilobits to 128 kilobits. CBS is evaluating technology from two European equipment makers Swedish and Norsat. “I don’t want to advocate that 2 megabits is equal to 8, but it has come a long way,” Mr. Governale said. “It has the potential of letting us get pictures out of places we couldn’t easily.” In addition, a mini-uplink includes a bi-directional IP-based data link.
The mini-uplinks are more expensive than satellite phones-on the order of $80,000 to $100,000 compared with $10,000 to $13,000, Mr. Governale said. The advantage, though, is that it allows the network to sustain an operation longer. “With video phone, it’s first strike, get the picture out,” he said. The mini-uplink, by contrast, could essentially be used as a transmission facility. “The uplink could allow us to remain on the system for much longer,” he said.
The technology isn’t appealing to all networks. CNN has opted not to use mini-uplinks at the moment, said Dick Tauber, VP of satellite and circuit for CNN. “I’d just as soon have a little more weight and protection such as with a flyaway [satellite],” he said. “If we were going to buy something we would just get another flyaway.”
While CNN does not anticipate substantial technical changes from last year’s coverage, it does expect to make more use of laptop editing suites. CNN used such technology on a limited basis in Afghanistan and plans to expand its use with the Iraqi conflict. “You take a DV signal from the camera, download into your laptop, then you can get an editing package and do a rough cut and do a standup in front of your camera, put a report together, send over the Internet as an FTP file,” Mr. Tauber said. “It’s not live, but it’s more efficient and cost effective than finding an earth station and transmitting over satellite.” Such editing capabilities were previously only available on Apple computers but have now become ubiquitous, he said.
Smaller, faster, better
Satellite phones have become smaller and more compact during the past year. NBC expects to use satellite phones that operate at 128 Kbps, double the speed used just a year ago. While satellite phones that run at 128 Kbps were available last year, they had to be jerry-rigged to work that fast, said David Verdi, executive director of news for NBC News. Now the phones simply operate at that speed. He said NBC is evaluating the mini-uplinks and may put them to use for its coverage of the Iraqi conflict.
“The big difference this time around is everything has gotten smaller,” he said. “Quality has become better for fixed uplinks, satellite phones and flyaways.”
ABC plans to rely largely on the same tools it used in Afghanistan-laptop editing suites, small-format digital cameras and the Internet-to transmit news material.
In addition to the technical advances at some networks, a new satellite is orbiting over the region. Eutelsat S.A. in September launched Hot Bird 6, which is transmitting TV and radio signals from the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.
And satellite transmission company GlobeCast has been prepping for the pending conflict. By mid-October, GlobeCast News expects to have in place a dedicated uplink and playout facility at the Ministry of Information in Baghdad, designated as the official broadcast point for international journalists, said Robert Behar, president and CEO of GlobeCast America.