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Issue 5: Current Developments

Satellite Newsgathering Crosses the Digital Divide


Digital Technology Gets Smaller, Cheaper, Faster

For news organizations, or for individuals, the barriers standing in the way of bringing news stories from the field are breaking down. Digital compression and digital transmission technologies are making it easier, cheaper and faster to bring news to air.

Take the millennium coverage of Mike Chinoy on Chatham Island. Without the store-and-forward equipment, the logistics and cost from that remote location would have made live reporting prohibitive. Prior to this satellite telephone application, the newsgatherer's only other option would have been to haul a full satellite dish uplink and generator along with the regular camera gear and lights up to the top of that cliff, some 30-plus cases of equipment. Chinoy's equipment consisted of only a computer-sized "send" unit and two laptop-sized satphones - a couple cases at most. As it was, the crew remembers, they barely made it up the hill through the mud with the small amount of equipment they had.

The upfront cost of a standard satellite uplink can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The store-and-forward hardware of the Chinoy team cost around $20,000, plus the two satphones at about $6,000 apiece. Imagine the cost in excess baggage alone to fly in 30 cases of equipment, not to mention the extra expense of sending along an uplink engineer to set up and operate the dish.

In comparing transmission costs, a 10 minute satellite feed in analog format from a remote location in 1999 would run about $100 per minute, with 10 minute minimum bookings required. By contrast, Inmarsat satphone airtime costs about $5 per minute for one phone ($10 per minute for two), or ONE-TENTH the price. The catch is, of course, the quality of the satellite uplink feed is a whole lot better for live feeds than the one using the lower bandwidth satphone transmission. Of course, to get video back to headquarters in highest quality, in 1999, the cost of transmitting prepared reporter pieces was still as expensive as using the standard satellite uplink. The reason is that it took 60 minutes to transmit one minute of video (scanned at 30 frames per second) over a single satellite phone at 64K.

If that same Chatham Island coverage were done today, the equipment needed would be smaller and considerably less expensive. Digital technology has left the hardware store-and-forward system behind, and may make even the hardware videophone "transmit only" units obsolete as well. Today, the "G-4" compression software would be loaded onto a laptop computer at a fraction of the cost of the old hardware. Broadcast-quality video editing software is also available for laptops at very low cost, potentially replacing the need for large videotape editing machines. Satellite phones themselves are also smaller, less expensive and have more features, such as GPS applications, than models just a few years ago.

Digital technology is also making it harder for governments to limit or control access to news stories. In some ways, the technology is developing faster than gatekeeper's ability to understand, identify and ultimately prohibit its use. Satellite phones look more and more like cellphones, video uplinks look more and more like laptop computers. Software with astonishing video production and transmission capabilities remains hidden within the hard-drive. If reporters can access the Internet, they can find way to deliver video and audio. And with satellite phones, it is no longer necessary to have access to the traditional electrical infrastructure to jump on the digital superhighway.

Advanced technology, reduced cost and easier access contribute to another key component of newsgathering - speed. LIVE coverage brings the story immediately, directly, to the viewer. The quicker journalists can get set up at the scene, the sooner reporting can begin. Even if Nic Robertson and Todd Baxter had been able to manage the logistics of bringing a full satellite dish uplink into Afghanistan, the cost and time spent setting up would have been exponentially higher. The timely part of the hijacking story may have been missed in the effort. Having the Humvee, with its mounted steerable satellite dish, in Iraq allowed CNN to tell the story of the progression of war, literally as it was moving forward, without having to wait for a stopping point to file reports.

Field-to-air video production and transmission are moving in the direction of software-based systems, rather than hardware. For CNN, the cost savings mean the same newsgathering budget gets more people into the field covering more stories. The reduction in size and complexity of the equipment means easier access to remote locations and greater mobility.

For the news industry, these digital technology breakthroughs, whether centered around satellite transmission or via the Internet, have contributed to an explosion of outlets for news and information. Competition in the news industry creates more demand for digital technology, which in turn creates greater competition among vendors, bringing innovation, mass production and, ultimately, lower costs.

For freelancers and small businesses, there has never been a better time to get into the video production business. The gap between the performance of top of the line technologies and that available to the public is closing rapidly, and so are equipment costs. For under $15,000, a journalist can set him/herself up with all the hardware and software needed for broadcast quality field production and transmission: a digital video camera, a laptop computer with digital video compression and editing software, and a satellite phone. And it all fits into your carry-on luggage.

Eli Flournoy is a Senior International Assignment Editor for CNN, the first 24 hour global news network. Here he presents powerful examples of how CNN has crossed the digital divide to bring late breaking news from remote locations to the public.

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