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Issue 5: Current Developments

Satellite Newsgathering Crosses the Digital Divide

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Live From Iraq

Hundreds of stories later, with war in Iraq imminent in the Fall 2002, preparations were underway at CNN for coverage beyond the scope of anything in its past - Gulf War I included. In addition to its many fixed satellite uplinks, flyaways, and mobile trucks deployed throughout the Middle East, CNN was ready with more than 50 satphones and 20 transmission units to accompany reporter teams heading into the field. Of the 20 CNN correspondents "embedded" with the U.S. and British military units, most were outfitted with the equipment needed for LIVE television reporting via satellite phone from extreme locations.

The transmission speed and quality of satphone units had greatly improved by 2002. Instead of using one telephone to transmit at 64K, most units were combining two phones for 128K of capacity. Advances in compression technology had accelerated the rate with which video could be captured, stored and transmitted from the field, and the quality was much better. For LIVE video transmissions as well, the satellite phones were delivering a much higher resolution picture. Instead of the video-conferencing functions on the old the store-and-forward machines, CNN and other news organizations in the field were using videophones for real time-to-air reporting.

Two monumental advancements in the technology were put to the test during the Iraq war. News organizations began outfitting reporters with a software-based digital compression technology called "G-4." Rather than the bulky hardware needed for the videophone or store-and-forward units, the same tasks were accomplished using a software program installed in journalists' laptop computers. Cameras were plugged directly into the laptops where the software handles the digitizing and compression of the video, with cables connecting the laptops to the satellite phones. The video transmission could take place one of two ways: a dial-up call from a satellite phone into the remote receiver, or isdn phone line connection for transmission over the Internet.

The G-4 software served to digitize and transmit reporter pieces at broadcast quality via satellite phone or via the Internet. In Iraq, CNN used these G-4 videophones for both LIVE and packaged reports from military encampments, from aircraft carriers and from other difficult to access locations. Most of the live images were of acceptable quality; many of the compressed and recorded pictures were indistinguishable from full broadband transmission.

According to Arnie Christianson of the CNN Satellites and Circuits desk, the software video codecs CNN has been developing to replace the old videophone technology holds steady at about 7 frames per second (using one satphone) at 64K, and 15 frames per second (using two satphones) at 128K. In covering scenes involving fast moving action, the 64K connections can drop to 2 frames per second, but at 128K the 15 frames stay pretty steady. A normal television picture is scanned at 30 frames per second.

The other development, and the flashiest, was a steerable tracking videophone satellite dish. CNN mounted three of these on its own Humvee vehicles, turning them into satellite trucks.

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Two of these Humvees were with embedded correspondents Walter Rodgers and Martin Savidge as they rode with the US military from Kuwait into Baghdad, and the other was in Northern Iraq for use by CNN reporter teams there. This innovation enables the videophone to stay connected to the satellite even while in motion.

Frankly, many of us at CNN didn't believe it would work, having been burned during live coverage countless times by a videophone signal that crapped out because the temperature was too hot, the environment was too dusty, or it was raining. There are many things that can interfere with a videophone signal, and movement is one of the worst.

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Yet, when Walter Rodgers called in from his embedded post with the 7th Cavalry, the first U.S. military unit to cross into Iraq, that 128K signal held for hours. Walt continued to narrate his stories over live videophone picture as the 7th Cavalry surged through armed resistance, past abandoned and burning military equipment and past dead and surrendering Iraqi soldiers. The images were surreal, cast in the other-worldly hue of deep red that comes from the light of the sun being absorbed and diffused by desert sandstorms.

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Having live MOVING pictures lent an almost voyeuristic quality to the war coverage. The fascination of watching in on the exploration of the unknown, not knowing what story, or danger, lay ahead, through the capabilities of the satellite tracking videophone dish, was an experience shared by reporters, those of us at headquarters in Atlanta and viewers alike.

No-where in CNN's coverage was this drama more apparent than in the journey correspondent Brent Sadler and his team made in advance of the U.S. troops through an Iraqi military base and into the city of Tikrit in Northern Iraq. Brent was not one of those embedded with the coalition forces, but took one of the CNN Humvees, with a mobile videophone tracking dish, down to Tikrit to see first hand whether Saddam Hussein's forces still controlled the area. As it turns out, his progress through the region was closely followed by U.S. and British military officials watching CNN. As they later told CNN, Sadler's live coverage helped make their own assessment of the status of the area. And when two cars filled with hostile Iraqis pulled alongside Brent's team on the road to Tikrit, opening fire at point-blank range, we all watched it LIVE, in horror. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.

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