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Field production technology

In the last few years, the development of digital TV has provided significant improvements for field newsgathering. While analog satellite channels were a full 36MHz wide, you can now fit four 9MHz digital channels into the same space. In some instances, you can fit three channels within 18MHz. This means cheaper satellite capacity and reduced power needed from the uplink, which reduces the weight and size of the equipment. This in turn reduces costs.

The digital dividend also has had an effect on the news process, with laptop tape editors from Sony and the Panasonic AJD 85 reducing the weight of a flyaway edit pack from 100kg to less than 40kg. In addition, digital camcorders such as Panasonic’s AJD800 cost less than half the price of their analog predecessors. These developments and many others have allowed news organizations to file live and edited reports faster and cheaper.

Videophones

The term “videophone” refers to an amalgamation of satellite telephones and videoconferencing technology. While most of the early videophone coverage of the Afghan conflict was of poor quality due to the use of a single 64kb/s satellite phone line, for more recent conflicts, the news channels moved to a data rate of 128kb/s by using two satellite phones.

The M4 GAN satellite phones have all but halved in price in the last few years and are readily available to hire. The improvement in the quality of the image is considerable.

Although videphones are watchable for a live report from the front line, their quality is not adequate for transmitting a reporter’s edited package. For an edited package that tells the story of the days’ news, many news providers have traditionally relied on a conventional SNG uplink. When it is either impossible or too expensive to get to an SNG, many providers use the Toko store-and-forward system from remote locations. The Toko system is a custom-built unit based on a PC, and uses MPEG-1 compression to deliver a bit rate of around 1.2Mb/s.

Editing, store-and-forward

There are now a number of store-and-forward systems available that use a powerful laptop PC equipped with a DV input. For example, the Livewire system delivers MPEG-1 compression at 2.5Mb/s. It uses M4 GAN Inmarsat satellite telephones, and can either use a single line or two lines. With both phones connected, it takes 23 minutes to send a minute of video and sound. Livewire, in conjunction with Avid Xpress DV editing software, allows a small team to deploy to a location, feed edited packages and go live — using battery power where necessary.

However, the equipment is still a considerable weight for a 2-man team to carry in addition to the ENG camera kit. Another problem with satellite-phone-based systems is that sudden and localized increase in demand for space on the Inmarsat satellite can cause heavy congestion and require many attempts to establish calls at peak times.

SNG operations

SNG operations have also advanced considerably. Several news organizations use the SWE-DISH fly-away SNG terminals. The company’s FA90K uses a well-engineered 90cm dish. The ITN set-up used a 400W Xicom HPA with a 200W as a backup and was powered by inverter generators.

In today’s heavily automated newsroom environment, to effectively act as an anchor, it is essential that the remote location can be linked into the newsroom computer system. This can be done via the same M4 satellite phone, but this is slow, and the call charges are expensive.

To get around this problem, you can use a system made by Vocality. Using a 128kb/s communications channel on the satellite, you can configure the Vocality unit to provide four telephone connections, four 4-wire circuits for talkback and clean feed, and a 64kb/s Ethernet channel to make a network connection into the newsroom system. The system is complex to install, in no small part because of the difficulties of establishing a bonded 128kb/s ISDN circuit between the control room and the uplink earth station. But, once established, the system is robust and provides substantial savings on Inmarsat satellite calls for both data and voice, as well as on international mobile phone calls.

A wise choice

When considering new technology, you must assess each development and apply it in a way that gives you a competitive advantage or a distinctive look to the output. Only by this test can you justify the investment.

Malcolm Smith is head of operational engineering for ITN.

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