News Articles

Uplink in the Palm Of Your Hand

Fox News Channel gets a jump with video-enabled phones 10/27/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

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.

Easy-to-do streaming

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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