Satellite Newsgathering Crosses the Digital Divide
Eli Flournoy, CNN
New Millenium Breakthroughs
The date was December 31, 1999. I was an International Assignment Editor doing night duty at CNN when I first realized just how revolutionary the ability to digitally transmit video using satellite phones was going to be for newsgathering.
After months of planning, CNN's millennium coverage was up and running. Live reports were coming in on the hour from every time zone. Combined with the worries about Y2K bugs and threats of terrorism, those 24 hours represented one of the most intense reporting efforts in CNN history.
For our first live report, we sent Correspondent Mike Chinoy, Cameraman Neil Bennett and Producer Tim Swartz to Chatham Island in the South Pacific with a portable store-and-forward satellite uplink. The system worked by plugging a camera into the send unit, essentially a computer with the capability to digitize the video, store it, and forward it via satellite telephone to compatible receivers in CNN's Atlanta and London offices.
The receiving units converted the digital information back into analog video, routed it onto one of CNN's internal video channels for use straight to air or recorded for later use.This equipment was designed to deliver "broadcast quality" images from the field using a satellite phone.
Given the digital compression technology at that time, it took roughly one hour for one minute of video to be transmitted over an Inmarsat satellite telephone with 64K of bandwidth. By using two satellite phones, we could double our capacity to 128K and cut the transmission time in half.
The store-and-forward unit also offered a video-conferencing feature that enabled us to put up a LIVE picture. The constraint was that viewers would see only about six of every 30 frames of video due to the limited bandwidth, which gave the picture a jerky, digital-skew effect. Adding a second satellite phone did improve the quality.
The more stationary the reporter, or whatever subject was being shot, the clearer the live picture. For CNN, this meant Mike Chinoy could be brought to air LIVE from a cliff overlooking the South Pacific to mark the very first moment of the year 2000.
Live From Afghanistan
It took a breaking news story later that same day, though, to make CNN and its viewers really take notice of the potential of digitally-transmitted video.
Indian Airlines Flight 814 enroute from Katmandu, Nepal to New Delhi had been hijacked by Muslim Kashmiri separatists on December 24. After several stops, the plane was allowed by Afghanistan's Taliban leadership to land at the Kandahar Airport. The hijackers held 155 people on board, having stabbed one of the passengers to death in flight. Their demands: the release of three Kashmiri separatists imprisoned in India and safe passage within Afghanistan. One of those militants was Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, believed to have later wired $100,000 to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. He was eventually convicted in a Pakistani court for masterminding the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
India's External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh authorized the release of the Kashmiri prisoners and in fact was transporting them himself to Kandahar. His plane was due to arrive on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1999.
CNN correspondent Nic Robertson and cameraman Todd Baxter, in the meantime, had wangled their way onto a United Nations flight from Pakistan into Afghanistan. They carried with them a camera, two Inmarsat satellite phones and a store-and-forward unit. Getting permission as a Western television journalist to cover news in Afghanistan under the Taliban was difficult under the best of circumstances. During prior trips to Afghanistan the general Taliban rule for journalists had been: no pictures OF ANY LIVING OBJECT, human or otherwise. With a story as sensitive as a hijacking, and one that the Taliban themselves were trying to mediate, coverage seemed almost impossible, never mind live.
At CNN headquarters in Atlanta, in the midst of the millennium coverage chaos, I sat at the International Desk waiting for Nic Robertson or Todd Baxter to let me know where they were. When Nic reported in, using his satellite phone, the two were already at the Kandahar airport, and Todd was trying to run cable out far enough to get a picture of the plane. Shortly after, Todd called to say he had the camera set up outside the terminal. He had a good view of the plane large as life just a few hundred yards away. So far, no one was stopping them.
Todd instructed me to watch the receiver as he dialed in on video-conferencing mode. Moments later, there it was, pictures of the hijacked plane were coming through to us LIVE from Kandahar, Afghanistan at six fames a second.
All of a sudden, one of the cockpit windows opened up and men began to climb out. CNN carried the hijacking's dramatic conclusion LIVE on all its networks, domestic and international, with Nic Robertson narrating the escape of the hijackers and their freed Kashmiri compatriots, and the safe release of the remaining hostages from the plane.
Viewers around the world, especially those in India with family members on board the flight, were riveted to television screens as the story unfolded before their eyes.
Our New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra called me to say that many television stations in India had abandoned their own programming and were broadcasting CNN International. Despite the poor quality of the video, it was a picture they couldn't afford not to have.
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