AFRTS offshoot expands distribution, programming
It's 0700 hours, (7 a.m. to civilians) and in a rather nondescript office building hugging the western bank of the Potomac, a rather unusual television operation is just beginning its broadcast day.
This is the Pentagon Channel, an offshoot of the sixty-something year old American Forces Radio and Television Service. The service is unusual; as unlike most everything else the federal government or military does with television, the programming is available for anyone who wants to watch, and despite its name, the channel does not originate from the Pentagon.
Historically, viewing of mainstream AFRTS programming has been and is still restricted to overseas military venues. Not so with this latest addition to the military's "bouquet" of satellite-distributed global television services. The Pentagon Channel is "open" to anyone who wants to view it and is seen officially at more than 300 U.S. military installations. The organization even has a marketing department to help place the service.
"We have placement with 15 of the top 25 cable service providers," said Maxine Teller, director of distribution for the Pentagon Channel. "We aggressively pursue placement and are there on Cox, Comcast, Time Warner and many others."
The channel is also available on the Dish satellite network. Verizon's FiOS fiber broadband delivery system has been delivering the Pentagon Channel since the first of the year. It's also available in the clear to backyard Ku-band dish owners who have a receiver that is DVB-S capable.
"This is the only military broadcasting that has such a large audience in the United States," said David Cloud, Pentagon Channel chief engineer. "In addition to satellite and cable, we are also streaming programming on the Internet and provide Podcasts from right here."
Cloud is quick to point out that even though the channel is widely available, few people outside military circles know about it.
The Pentagon Channel is one of eight video programming services transmitted by AFRTS (there are 12 radio channels that ride along with television on the satellite paths). Due to licensing agreements with content providers--major networks, sports and news channels and the like--the other seven are provided only for overseas viewing by U.S. troops.
The Pentagon Channel service started out as just a news package prepared only for viewing within the Pentagon, hence the service's name. The feed was delivered to the Pentagon via a dedicated fiber link for distribution on the in-house RF system. The Alexandria group packaged news stories and fed them out to this limited audience. The concept was welcomed, and demand grew for additional feeds and coverage. A decision was made to launch it in mid-2004 as a full time channel with widespread availability.
Program elements can come from literally anywhere in the world that the Department of Defense has a presence.
"We carry 'Freedom Journal Iraq' on a daily basis from Baghdad," Cloud said. "We get daily newscasts from Germany, Korea, Japan and Afghanistan. Domestically we take in a lot of programming too--Ft. Riley, Ft. Hood and other military bases around the country put together stories for local base consumption, but we air them around the world on the Pentagon Channel. We get a lot of interesting stories from Nellis Air Force Base, home of the Thunderbirds. Programming comes from everywhere.
"We start up at 0700 hours and run live for 12 hours. The next 12 hours come off the server," Cloud said.
MOVING TO DIGITAL
Engineering services play a big role in making all of this happen, and the Pentagon Channel's infrastructure is no different from most other broadcasters when "digital transition" is mentioned.
"We're a hybrid digital/analog plant," Cloud said. "About 80/20. We've been making great strides to transition."
The facility has six Sony PDW-530 XDCAMs and a like number of Avid Adrenaline Media Composer edit suites. These are networked with a 100-drive Avid Unity server and a smaller Unity server used only for spot length content. Playout is via Avid's Airspeed. Everything is tied together with 2 GBb Fibre Channel networking. In addition, the operation has 20 Avid Newscutter XP seats for desktop editing applications.
These PC applications are a bit more involved than in most broadcast environments.
"One of the biggest issues in government agencies, but not unique to government, is that of separate IT systems," Cloud said.
For security reasons, the broadcast networking cannot be a part of the general office IT infrastructure. The Pentagon Channel facility maintains its own IT system, separate from that of the military's.
Cloud thinks that the situation is going to become more interesting in a few more years.
"We have been 'BRAC-ed' [Base Realignment And Closure]," Cloud said. The activities of American Forces Information Service (parent organization of the Pentagon Channel) are being combined with those of the Naval Media Center, the Soldier's Media Center and the Air Force News Agency.
"We're all supposed to be consolidated by 2010. As we move into a combined environment, the issue will be that of a common IT infrastructure. We're going from 200 people to 700 people. Everyone is going to want to look at content from their desktop and right now, (because of the separate network requirement) we're looking at two computers per desktop."
FUTURE IS IT-BASED
Regardless of this and other complexities that accompany the Information Age, Cloud thinks that the future of broadcasting is tightly wrapped around IT.
"We are looking to fully exploit file-based methodology," he said. "We're moving away from videotape and expanding file transfer--Podcasting, streaming--we're working with various distributors to get VOD content to cable providers."
The Pentagon Channel's television plant was constructed before the "digital dawn," and as with most television plants nowadays that are more than a few months old, the facility is in the process of being expanded and reconfigured. One of the newest additions is an audio and video production suite constructed exclusively to accommodate military PSA production work. Cloud remarked that this newest resource has been kept busy since it was first switched on a few months ago.
Innovative Technologies Inc., a Washington D.C. area broadcast and visual systems integration firm, has worked closely with Cloud to make the Pentagon Channel a reality. Humberto Irizarry, business development manager for ITI described some of the most recent additions.
"We integrated Sundance automation into their existing operation and also installed a PESA 144x144 router," Irizarry said. "This was similar to performing brain surgery without an anesthetic; we had to integrate the new systems functionalities while the Pentagon Channel, which operates on a 24/7 schedule, continued to broadcast its programming."
Irizarry gives a lot of the credit for the project's success to Cloud.
"This is probably the best example of how the government can work with a contractor," Irizarry said. "Dave had the vision and brought us in to meet his project needs and goals. Working very closely under his direction, ITI was able to complete the project on schedule and within budget."
Another ongoing project is the upgrading of the channel's graphics facility. Cloud has purchased two Apple G5 servers that will provide a couple of TB of RAID array storage strictly for the graphics operation.
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James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others. He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.