A Fighting Chance at Bringing War Home

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War is certainly hell, and for reporters, technicians and producers, it can be murder on camera and computer equipment. But television correspondents covering wars and global crises know firsthand the technological innovations that have made going live from far-flung locales easier. The suitcase-sized BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) device, which links to a satellite via a broadband connection, has, for example, supplanted thousands of pounds of satellite and editing equipment, enabling more boots-on-the-ground stories from war zones.

Last month, when the last combat brigade was making its way out of Iraq, Richard Engel was able to broadcast live from the back of an Army truck with the help of NBC’s Bloom Mobile, an armored vehicle with gyroscope-mounted satellite that allows for live broadcasts in satellite-challenged areas. At several points during his four-plus hours of live reporting, the picture froze or dropped out. But multiple news organizations on the same embed were unable even to get a connection.

Engel knows all about such challenges. NBC’s main man in the area since 2003, he speaks to these innovation shifts as someone intimately familiar with their present limits in Afghanistan on a daily basis. Things have “gotten easier, but we’re not quite there yet,” he says.

However, Nic Robertson, CNN’s senior international correspondent, believes networks are much closer to being there. He joined CNN in 1990 as an engineer, and installed the network’s satellite in the garden of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War. His career has spanned several wars in many regions; he says that transmitting live from battle zones is “vastly, immeasurably” different from what it once was.

Robertson speaks to how far we’ve come; Engel speaks to how much further we have to go. Both men offered their views to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie. An edited transcript follows.

From a technological standpoint, what has had the most impact on how you do your job?
Richard Engel:
The thing that has profoundly affected my life in terms of technology is that more people have cellphones. When I ! rst started as a print reporter in Cairo [in 1996], I didn’t have a cellphone and no one else had cellphones. Now, your taxi driver has a cellphone, the guy who sells a sandwich from a cart in Kabul has a cellphone. That has made it much easier for me to get information.

When I go to Afghanistan, pretty much everyone has a cellphone. You can call the local chief or the local police of! cer and talk to them directly, and even ask them to take video of something. And if they’re switched on, they can send you the video.

What about the way you transmit video in the field?
That has gotten easier, but we’re not quite there yet. The impression that you can just carry a suitcase, unzip it and suddenly you’re doing live television is false.

You work with BGAN in the war zone a lot.
That’s the standard technology. And a BGAN [terminal] is about the size of a laptop computer. But the honest truth is, it only works half the time. It freezes. It drops out. You can have radio interference. If I’m at a breaking news story and I have 15 live requests and I’m using a BGAN, I can guarantee that not all of them are going to work.

Is it even possible to get out a live shot in some of the more remote areas of Afghanistan?
It’s best to bring it back to [the NBC bureau in] Kabul and broadcast it from there. We were in a place called the Arghandab valley recently. And the Arghandab is a very, very horrible place; rough, hot, a Taliban center, one of the most dangerous places in southern Afghanistan. My cameraman [Bredun Edwards] and I were with U.S. troops and we were in a very seriously firefight. Several soldiers just a few feet away from us were seriously injured, and we captured this entire incident on video. So, we wanted to turn around something quickly for that night’s Nightly News. But just to feed about five to 10 minutes of video took us about eight hours. We did get the spot on that night, but it drove us crazy. It kept dropping out; it kept freezing. But that’s become my life. A few years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to feed from that remote outpost at all. That video would have had to wait until we got back to Kabul.

And how long would it have taken to get back to Kabul?
From this base to get back to Kabul we had to walk to another base, then drive to another base and then fly to two more bases. It would have taken us three days to get back to Kabul.

You were in Baghdad for CNN in 1991 when Saddam Hussein let CNN mount a satellite in the garden of the Al-Rashid Hotel during the Gulf War. So, how much have things changed technologically?
Nic Robertson:
Hugely, vastly and immeasurably. If you think back to the days of the first Gulf War, the satellite equipment weighed several hundred kilograms, and one of the impediments of operating it was that you needed a huge amount of power, so you needed a huge generator to run it. Fast-forward to today; we’re now working with laptop computers with cameras that use memory chips and very small batteries, and transmitting on a BGAN [terminal]. You get the same effect requiring much less power, with equipment that fits in a backpack and weighs about 10, 15 kilograms. And if you’re careful, you can run for four days. So, it’s quantifiably different. And, of course, that gives you a huge amount of " exibility with how far you can go out with troops and still be live on an embed.

But how dependable is BGAN in remote places like Afghanistan?
BGAN always depends on the satellite capability. If you’re on an air base, sometimes you can get interference from radar. Sometimes if there are military operations going on, there will be satellite phone service suppression in the area. There are always limitations. But generally speaking, if you use BGAN properly and don’t have a lot on interference, you can get a very good signal.

What is the next technological innovation for war-zone reporting?

I’ve got a version of a BGAN [terminal] that I’m testing at the moment that has expanded bandwidth. Just upping the bandwidth from 256 to 384 kilobits [per second] gets us a much betterquality signal. And it’s half the weight and size of the old version. I would share and empathize with the frustrations of the BGAN; if you have too many people using BGAN in a small area with one satellite, there can be more interference and then that can be a limitation. But I see us already moving beyond that. There are more companies offering more varieties of equipment at wider bandwidth right now.

And certainly improved cellphone technology will be a factor.
I think we’re on the verge of something that is very big in moving from 3G and 3½G to 4G. This means the video quality coming from cellphones will be better, which means you can put the cellphone technology into the camera so that your camera can always be live. To have a signal of that quality, we’re talking more about an urban environment or a developed country. In a war zone, it’s going to take a number of years before we have such wide capability from a camera to a satellite.

But it’s absolutely going to happen. We’re going to see the transmitter size or the antenna size come down, and we’re going to see that be integrated into the camera so that the camera will always be live. Effectively, if you combine that with all of the millions of mobile phones that there are in the world, it will give a broadcaster the opportunity to use a huge amount of video material. Imagine a YouTube network that doesn’t just play clips that people have [posted], but a CNN/YouTube where you have live video being streamed from around the world. I think we’re on the verge of that.