Uplink in the Palm Of Your Hand
Fox News Channel gets a jump with video-enabled phones
By Glen Dickson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/29/2006 7:00:00 PM
When a small plane crashed into a Manhattan apartment building earlier this month, killing New York Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle and his flight instructor, the first live pictures from the scene on Fox News Channel weren't generated by the latest tapeless camcorder from Sony or Panasonic. Instead, they came from a Palm: a Palm Treo smartphone, that is.
Fox News Channel has embraced the Treo 700 series smartphones, which have an integrated camera and broadband connectivity via Verizon's EV-DO network. That allows Fox a way to quickly get breaking news on-screen while a traditional satellite news truck is still setting up to transmit the picture.
The phones have also been used to generate video when a traditional uplink isn't available. To do so, FNC is using video-codec technology from Cleveland-based Comet Video Technologies, which initially developed it for security and surveillance applications.
Fox's use of the Treo smartphones was triggered when a Fox engineer saw the Comet Video technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. Sharri Berg, Fox senior VP for news operations at the Fox News Channel and for Fox stations, was intrigued. (See Q&A, p. 34.)
Ben Ramos, director of field operations, Fox News Channel, says Fox quickly started to work with Comet to develop capabilities for broadcast use, which required modifying the specifications of the transmitters and receivers.
Fox News Channel first used the Treo to deliver live pictures on-air as its news crew sped to the scene of the Amish-school shooting in Pennsylvania on Oct. 2. It also used the device to show viewers the action in the Atlanta trial of accused murderer and kidnapper Brian Nichols as a reporter captured video of a hearing that was being shown to reporters on an internal courthouse feed in the court press room.
“They just held the phone up to the monitor and had pretty good bandwidth,” says Ramos. He says Fox has experienced good quality-of-service but had some throughput problems during coverage of the New York plane crash.
Using the EV-DO network, Fox News Channel has seen bit rates as low as 2 kilobits per second (kbps) all the way up to 120 kbps, with an average of around 80 kbps, which equates to video at 3 to 4 frames per second.
While the resulting pictures are far below broadcast quality, they can be achieved instantly, compared with the 15 minutes it takes for an SNG truck to get set up to transmit. It is also faster than small portable broadband uplinks, such as Inmarsat's satellite-based BGAN system.
In Chicago, Fox is testing higher-speed UTMS/HSDPA wireless technology from Cingular, which has shown effective bit rates of 300-400 kbps and is supposed to support bit rates up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps). In Europe, advanced Third Generation (3G) networks offer average bit rates of around 150 kbps, and the next generation of EV-DO, Revision A, may push it to 800 kbps.
“The technology just seems to be a moving target,” says Ramos, “and we'll keep chasing it.” Fox bought 26 Treo phones, which cost $399 each, with unlimited EV-DO service running $69 a month. They've been sent to 11 bureaus and six Fox-owned stations.
Although Fox is the first to use the Treos to stream live video, CNN uses similar phones for video podcasts on its Website and, in a few instances, has captured video with a smartphone and then transmitted it back to Atlanta via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) for on-air use.
One notable segment that made it on-air was footage from foreign correspondent Nic Robertson, which showed a mob attacking his vehicle in Darfur, Sudan, because they believed his translator was a spy.
More mobile video is coming from CNN, promises Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN International. The footage provides “a different kind of rawness, and there's plenty of evidence consumers have taken to that stuff.” He says that viewers can “expect a lot of reporters firing live” using high-bandwidth 3G phones.
Peeking inside FNC's New York control room, a visitor saw live video streams from Chicago and Miami. They were grainy but clear enough to be used. The video currently resides on a server at Comet offices in Cleveland, but FNC plans to bring that capability in-house.
“Each bureau has one sitting on the assignment desk, charging up,” says Ramos.
The devices are easy to use because they can start streaming automatically with the push of a button, allowing producers and reporters, in addition to trained cameramen, to capture video; they can also record snippets of video for non–real-time transmission via FTP.
Because the Treos can't simultaneously support an audio link and a video feed, though, an on-camera interview requires the use of a separate cellphone.
One bonus for field crews: Since the Treos support Sling Media's Slingbox Mobile software, Fox hooked up a Slingbox to allow reporters in the field to watch what's on the network.
“We're always looking to get pictures on-air first, with whatever capabilities we could think of,” says Fox's Ramos. “When you think of what would be the easiest and fastest way to get on-air, it's pretty much the thing that's sitting in everyone's pocket.”
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