Compression Technologies Aid War Reporting,
By David Cass
using Thuraya phones" journalists told
of "embedded" reporters (reporters accompanying Allied forces) to report instantly
from the battlefield may be curtailed. Numerous reports on March 30 say that US
military commanders in Iraq have banned the use of some satellite phones, in particular
those using Thuraya (and this includes Inmarsat's Regional BGAN system) carried
by journalists attached to their units, apparently fearing the signal could give
away their location to Iraqi forces. Questioned on the new rules, Major-General
Victor Renuart told a news briefing at US Central Command in Qatar that the order
was not meant to restrict media coverage. Thuraya's location-finding system is
accurate to within 100 metres and its location data is downloaded to Thuraya headquarters
in Abu Dhabi. Rival Iridium satellite phones have a less accurate location-finding
system and the user data is downloaded direct to the United States.
with permission from Satcom Insider, Volume 5, Issue 7 (April 1, 2003)
BBC journalists covering
the Gulf crisis are being equipped with the latest technology for transmitting
TV reports over satellite phones.
The technology is the
result of a partnership between TVZ Ltd - a company with strong links to the television
newsgathering business - and Fourth Broadcast Network Ltd. (4BN), specialists
in web and internet-based software development, integration and services.
When TVZ cracked the compression
problem broadcasters hailed it as the start of "a broadcast revolution" which
would end the reliance on expensive satellite transfers, thus saving massive amounts
of money, particularly for international news organisations operating bureaux
all around the world.
Now, there have been two
First: both the BBC and
ABC News have completed appraisals of the TVZ software and have bought licences
to operate it. The BBC has deployed its first 13 purchases (over and above the
three they already held for the appraisal exercise) of the "Laptop Newsgathering"
(LNG) system during the Gulf war. The software is loaded onto Panasonic Toughbook
laptops and used in conjunction with AVID editing software. All 13 units have
been despatched to the Middle East where TV correspondents have to be ready to
"travel light" on media trips organised by the military. If it proves as efficient
and cost effective as they expect, you can bet that all their main offices and
any correspondents travelling to remote locations will be carrying similar equipment
by the end of the year.
Peter Mayne, Executive
Editor BBC Newsgathering said, "The LNG system has been rigorously field tested
by BBC correspondents in West Africa and we are satisfied that the system is rugged
enough to cope with whatever our newsgathering teams might be faced with in the
Gulf. The LNG software integrates well with our editing platform on one laptop
- a distinct advantage for teams that need to travel light." The BBC's Steve Pearce
confirms that the system is being used currently in Iraq for filmed reports (two-ways
still rely on videophone) and is working extremely well: it is, says Pearce, "the
best quality store-and-forward system I've seen."
Just a quick reminder
of why the customers are so excited. The new compression algorithm enables broadcast
quality video to be condensed into a data file that can be transmitted as an email
attachment or FTP file at ratios between 1:1.5 or 1:2. In other words, one minute
of TV will transmit in anything between a minute and a half and two minutes. It's
not real time but it is about seven times faster than the previous best with no
loss of quality.
Combined with a software
decoder system, a video file can be transmitted via the internet or a satellite
phone to the home studios, where it can be decoded for playout without the end-user
having to purchase bespoke hardware. Costs over satellite phone are significantly
higher than via an office-based internet connection for the simple reason that
bandwidth is limited and the cost-per-minute is significantly higher. As Pearce
points out, it takes around one hour to transit a 3-minute filmed report by videophone.
The benefit of transmitting via sat-phone is independence.
For office/studio based
distribution of either news pictures or other programming, the technology presents
significant cost advantages over conventional means of distribution.
The cash saving, for a
company currently buying ten ad-hoc satellite feeds per week is around $US390,000
per annum. Let's take a local example. One Middle East organisation which is appraising
the system right now estimates that its saving could be in the region of $8 million
per annum. That is a significant sum in a business (news) which appears not to
be able to generate profits unless it is in India!
Just before the invasion,
another major broadcaster announced that it is deploying the Laptop News Gathering
(LNG) system in the Gulf: the US network, ABC News, has taken 15 LNG software
licences which are installed onto laptops.
The second development
is that we were wrong in believing that TVZ was leading the field!
It seems that the Russian
TV network, RTVI, has already begun using a similar system for regular broadcasts
between New York and Moscow, using UUNet.
The announcement that
it had started commercial broadcasting over the internet came quite out of the
blue in January. The company's press release described it as "an historic event."
RTVI is using software
developed by the San Diego, California, company, Path 1 Network Technologies,
which has also identified the potential cost savings to customers as the driving
force for its research and development.
"For years, we have been
watching for true-video-over-IP, and Path 1 appears to be the first company out
of the gate and currently provides the best working solution available for sending
broadcast quality video over standard IP networks," comments Gerry Kaufhold, principal
analyst with In-Stat/MDR.
The system being used
by RTVI is not the same as TVZ's and is designed to save money in the delivery
to the end users, the viewers, rather than save the ad-hoc satellite fees which
are so crippling to the big news organisations.
Details of the system
are sketchy but RTVI says they simply connected through Path 1's Cx1000 IP gateway
to UUnet and began transmitting. They are sending between 4 and 6 megabits of
live video over 12 hops to Moscow. The system transmits in real time via IP in
either compressed or uncompressed mode and either from point-to-point or to multiple
Though different from
TVZ's compression software, Cx1000 saves money in the same way - by literally
eliminating satellite costs. The return on capital expenditure is almost immediate.
In this Business to Consumer
(B2C) environment, quality is the single most important factor. In just the same
way as the news organisations want to upgrade their signals sent by correspondents
in the field, from the jumpy, grainy sat-phone quality which came to prominence
in Afghanistan, to full-on broadcast quality, so the viewer sitting at home needs
at least the quality in light entertainment, sports, and movies to which he has
Julius Feinstein, vice
president of broadcast operations and engineering for RTVI's parent company, Overseas
Media, says the first few days were a revelation, not least because the system
worked despite the poor quality of Russia's telecommunications infrastructure.
"It is one thing to send video across a US or European backbone but to pass broadcast-quality
video across a congested and under-maintained Russian infrastructure is just unbelievable,"
he said. "We saw no glitches. There's no special provisioning, it just works."
Feinstein says the broadcaster
now plans similar links from New York to Tel Aviv and Frankfurt. Because the technology
works so well, he says RTVI will be able to concentrate on its core business of
providing information to its viewers, rather than technology.
The RTVI experience could
herald the next phase of broadcast, which some describe as web streaming. "It
shows that the quality barrier has been crossed. This ought to bring in extra
viewers (subscribers), extra interactive services and, therefore, new revenue
streams," says Feinstein. TBS
David Cass is editor-at-large
for The Information and Technology Publishing Co., Ltd (ITP) and presenter of
"MBC News On 2." This article is based on a piece by David Cass that appeared
in Digital Studio's April 2003 issue.