Portable news systems: Smaller, lighter and smarter

As a cameraman and satellite engineer based in Cyprus in the early 1990s, I used to spend about nine months a year on the road traveling from hotspot to hotspot. I would be sent out with the rest of the team to provide live coverage of everything from the genocide in Rwanda to the war in Chechnya via the inevitable long stints in Sarajevo. It was an exciting, though often dangerous, occupation.

Aside from the obvious buzz of being on-site while history was being made, the sheer logistical nightmare of what we were trying to do made it a job not for the faint-hearted. We would regularly travel with up to 120 flight cases on large satellite deployments, which could be scaled down to about 40 for a more straightforward job.

At around two metric tons, our excess baggage bills shot up into the tens of thousands of dollars, giving us instant VIP treatment from any airline we chose to travel with. Back then though, a 15-minute satellite feed used to be priced at around the $2500 mark. So, although the outlay was high, the rewards of being the first on-site were potentially huge.

However, it was about six months into this exciting new profession that I realized I was becoming a bit of a regular with my chiropractor. Imagine arriving at the Israeli border crossing into Gaza with a flatbed truck full of equipment and being told you had to carry it across into the Occupied Territories (a mere 700ft walk) to load it into a Palestinian truck on the other side — all this in the 100° heat of midsummer.

Lightweight flyaways

I did this for 10 years, until I'd finally had enough of getting shot at. I moved to the UK to become slightly more desk-bound in an operational management role. Much to my chagrin, it was about this time that the first of the lightweight flyaways started to appear. Over the last few years, the technology changed from analog to digital, and the units became smaller, lighter, smarter, lower-cost and easier to operate.

Then 9/11 happened. It was instantly clear there was going to be a lot of international news from often hostile environments that would require, above anything, mobility. Things were going to change, and fast.

Sure enough, the next few months witnessed an explosion in videophone reports and of the much smaller Sony PD150 camcorders over the traditional Betacam units. Although the quality of videophones back then was somewhat dubious, the benefits of being able to have a full kit that weighed the same as your personal luggage were undeniable, not to mention the financial savings that could be made compared with the traditional satellite feeds.

Store and forward

Along with this advance came the development of store-and-forward technology. Using simple FTP protocols, this technology gave journalists in the field the ability to send their news packages over satphone systems (as well as ISDN or landlines where available) back to their stations.

Suddenly, the world of newsgathering was looking like a different beast altogether. Portability and cost-effectiveness gave almost infinite possibilities to an industry where immediacy is crucial.

Live reporting via videophone

However, it took a little while to develop such technology for live applications. Five years ago, BBC News was one of the first to do this, experimenting initially with live transmission of stills of the Dalai Lama from India. Later, it was used for reports from Sierra Leone, providing images as they happened with no storage or transmission delay either by satphone at 64kb/s or by ISDN at up to 128kb/s.

Since then, we have all become used to the live satphone report. Despite improvements in compression standards and bandwidth availability, however, image quality remains less than desirable.

3G takes it a step further

3G mobile telephony is helping with these limitations, and broadcasters are beginning to experiment with the technology. In March of this year, the BBC announced it was introducing 3G video reports to news bulletins from five areas around the UK. The service is provided by Newbury-based All New Video using Radvision technology. It enables news reporters to make video calls to their news studio as part of 10-minute local news segments that viewers can activate interactively. Unlike other 3G services, which work only within the 3G network, this service provides two-way video calls between 3G mobile, ISDN and IP networks.

The image quality of these reports is still not what we term broadcast-quality, but increasingly, news is coming from many sources, not just the professionals. With 70 nonstop news channels around the world, there are more and more opportunities for the man on the street to be the man breaking the news. 3G technology will improve both the quality and immediacy of such contributions.

Live video over IP

The advent of IP-based technology is the next step in the evolution of newsgathering tools. Developments such as IP-based content exchange platforms, for example, will transform newsgathering. Such systems consist of a laptop with the software application and a USB key to gain access to a VPN, plus an Internet connection. At worst, users would need to take a satphone or regional broadband global area network (R-BGAN) unit with them if there's no Internet access.

These next-generation store-and-forward systems work in a similar way to e-mail and text messaging. Unlike the traditional store-and-forward solutions, they do not rely on FTP, which is only point-to-point. Instead, these systems offer the advantage of being able to send files simultaneously to multiple recipients using a hybrid of Internet message access protocol (IMAP) and simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) through a centrally hosted server. Similar to text messaging, users can also set up their preferences to indicate in what format they wish to receive files. The main server then transcodes the incoming signal on-the-fly to match each recipient's requested format.

Users can send packages not only back to London for transmission, for example, but also to the regional bureau simultaneously so it can re-edit them for the later news bulletin. In addition, any file sent is packetized. So, if the connection is lost, users don't need to resend everything. The server will pick up the download from where the users left off. They can even receive text messages on their phones to tell them their files have been received.

However, the Holy Grail in newsgathering terms is the ability to send live broadcast-quality footage from the field. When I used GlobeCast's IP-based WING content exchange platform and a stripped-down version of an MPEG-4 H.264 software encoder running on real-time protocol (RTP) along the lines of a high-quality webcam, I was live in seconds. The delay was slightly less than I was used to over a traditional satellite link. At 128kb/s, the quality was better than anything I'd seen on a videophone. There's also a messaging service attached, so I could chat to the folks at the receiving end. The universal nature of IP-based solutions means that users may use any available network, whether it be public (DSL, WiFi hotspot) or dedicated access (a satellite link, IP VPN). The only requirement is that the connection supports Internet protocol.

So here I am, suddenly able to work anywhere, doing what I was doing 15 years ago. But this time, all I have is a laptop and a small camera. Total weight is less than 20kg. Total price to send a three-minute package costs around $25.

Rich Wilde is technical advisor to GlobeCast News and Events.