CNN phones in from hot spots

Although the video images have been jittery and the audio sometimes drops off, CNN's use of a videophone is proving that content is the most important element in news.

In an effort to scoop the competition, reporters at the cable news network are using the Talking Head videophone system from England's 7E Communications Ltd. connected to a satellite telephone to transmit exclusive live feeds out of Afghanistan.

"Some information is better than no information," said Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive. "I think people are very understanding of the difficulties in getting news out of Afghanistan, and we've had nothing but compliments from viewers."

The Talking Head videophone is about the size of a laptop computer, though twice as deep, and costs roughly $20,000. It can be used with any telephone line, ISDN connection or satellite phone. For reporting out of Afghanistan, CNN is using the worldwide INMARSAT satellite service, which requires a dedicated phone and dish, also about the size of a briefcase.

Because the INMARSAT phone can handle transmissions at only about 64 kb/s, video images are sent and displayed at 15 frames per second, instead of the normal 30, resulting in the low video and audio quality. The frame rate can be improved to 30 f/s (or 128 kb/s) by linking two satellite phones together, but, CNN is not doing it that way, saving time and money.

According to Robert Tait, an engineer at 7E Communications, the manufacturer has received "hundreds of calls" since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. ABC has ordered several for its foreign bureaus, he said, although a spokesman at the network would not confirm this.

"We're working 20-hour days to satisfy orders," he said, noting that requests have come from a broad spectrum of users. "Demand has gone up five-fold since this started. Everyone wants it yesterday, and we're having problems keeping up."

The manufacturer's exclusive U.S. distributor (Rich Tech, Ocala, Fla.) has placed an order for 50 units, Tait said.

CNN currently uses about 15 Talking Head systems and plans to outfit all 30 of its international bureaus, according to Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of international newsgathering.

The network has used videophones since December 1999, when correspondent Nic Robertson used an earlier model to broadcast exclusive pictures and sound of a hijacking in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The videophone also gave CNN the first live pictures of the 24 crew members released from the U.S. Navy spy plane held in China when they landed on the Pacific island of Guam.

Robertson, currently the only Western reporter in the Taliban-ruled section of Afghanistan, is using the latest Talking Head system. The units are "remarkably easy to use," according to CNN's Jordan, who said several hundred news personnel have received training in Atlanta. They like its portability, which allows a reporter in the field to "broadcast live TV in a matter of seconds," he said.

Although the system was initially used as a backup to CNN's more-traditional satellite trucks, it has stepped to the forefront in the past weeks as getting live pictures out of Afghanistan has become problematic.