For News Networks, Speedy Satellites Rule

Light and fast. Those are the key characteristics of the digital satellite-newsgathering (DSNG) gear being used to cover the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Videophones and small-aperture satellite “flyaway” systems are allowing journalists to cover more ground with less equipment.

And powerful new laptops equipped with nonlinear editing software mean content packages can be finished in the field before being transmitted back to network headquarters. Advances in compression technology are also making the satellite transmission process more time-efficient.

Network news executives are pleased with the DSNG gear currently being used in Iraq and say that, if they had to begin coverage of a new conflict tomorrow, they would stick with their current systems.

“We’re going to build upon what we already have, because it works and people are trained with it,” says Sharri Berg, vice president of news operations for Fox News Channel. “Everyone was trained enough in the first place to go out and make it work, but now they understand the nuances, and they’re much better at troubleshooting.”

The biggest advances since the war began have come in digital compression technology. The latest encoders are capable of transmitting the same amount of material in half the time.

File-transfer software has also grown more robust and user-friendly. For example, if satellite connectivity is briefly lost during transmission, the new software allows the session to resume once the signal is restored. That wasn’t always the case.

“With file-transfer technologies at the beginning, it was trial by fire,” Berg recalls, and that’s hardly a play on words. “If a cameraman was in the middle of transmitting a file back and it was a one-minute news package, it would take an hour. If the satellite went dark for a second while he was transmitting, then he had to start over.”

For a fixed-uplink system at its Baghdad bureau, Fox uses a RAD Data Communications Channel Bank system to feed back a 7-MHz video channel and a 2-MHz “coms” channel, which contains two Internet Protocol streams. One IP stream is a live 24/7 Webcam picture of al-Firdos Square in Baghdad; the other is all voice and data communications.

Fox has three SNG flyaway satellite dishes in Baghdad, used by correspondents there. But the flyaways, which ride on the back of armored vehicles and uplink to the Intelsat 701 satellite, are currently used sparingly due to safety concerns as attacks increased.

Correspondents don’t use videophones in Baghdad, but if they’re venturing farther afield, Fox reporters carry both a videophone and a standard satellite phone.

The videophones complete a compact field acquisition system comprising Sony PD-150 or PD-170 DV cameras and Apple G4 laptops running Final Cut Pro software.

“It’s a small kit to begin with, and it’s worked,” says Berg. “It’s small enough for redundancy, so you can take an extra camera or an extra videophone.”

Deploying the G4 laptop has had a big impact on CNN’s digital satellite-newsgathering operations, according to Gordon Castle, senior vice president, CNN Technology.

As he explains, at the beginning of the Iraq war, CNN was relying on hardware-based videophones, specially built boxes that allowed reporters to plug the camera in and transmit a serial video stream. One videophone box was dedicated to store-and-forward applications; another was designed for live feeds.

“Now we can transmit through the G4 itself,” says Castle.

Images are videostreamed to air. He says, “It’s eliminated a number of pieces of equipment and made us much more flexible.”

CNN also uses Sony PD-170 cameras and runs Final Cut Pro on its G4 laptops. It finds that a lot more material is being edited by journalists in the field.

Finishing packages in Iraq, not Atlanta, means more store-and-forward transmissions and less real-time video feeds. So CNN has installed a central server that automatically transfers material and generates metadata for each clip.

“We’re bringing back a lot of material as file transfers,” says Castle. “Counting all of our international coverage, it’s 300 pieces a month.”

CBS is using a more traditional SNG approach, relying on the Ku-band capacity it has secured through the European News Exchange (ENEX), a consortium of European broadcasters and CBS, to pump video out of Iraq. Live feeds come back to New York on a “double-hop,” while other material is edited in CBS’ London bureau.

“Nothing gets edited in Iraq, as we’re keeping staff there to a minimum,” says Frank Governale, vice president of operations for CBS News. “They send it to London, or it comes to us [in New York]. The taped stuff, those pieces, are edited in London.”

In Baghdad, CBS uses an Advent Mantis system as its fixed SNG facility. The network also has a couple of CML flyaway systems and a couple of Norsat units, which are carried on Hummers.

Because of the danger, speed is the most important feature. Says Governale, “Our record time is seven minutes from the time the crew pulled [the flyaway] off the Hummer, set it up and started transmitting pictures.”