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A Fighting Chance at Bringing War Home

Reporters conflict on how well technology brings battle-zone stories to TV 9/20/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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War is certainly hell, and for reporters,
technicians and producers, it can be murder on
camera and computer equipment. But television
correspondents covering wars and global crises know firsthand
the technological innovations that have made going live
from far-flung locales easier. The suitcase-sized BGAN (Broadband
Global Area Network) device, which links to a satellite
via a broadband connection, has, for example, supplanted
thousands of pounds of satellite and editing equipment, enabling
more boots-on-the-ground stories from war zones.

Last month, when the last combat brigade was making its
way out of Iraq, Richard Engel was able to broadcast live
from the back of an Army truck with the help of NBC’s Bloom
Mobile, an armored vehicle with gyroscope-mounted satellite
that allows for live broadcasts in satellite-challenged areas. At
several points during his four-plus hours of live reporting, the
picture froze or dropped out. But multiple news organizations
on the same embed were unable even to get a connection.

Engel knows all about such challenges. NBC’s main man
in the area since 2003, he speaks to these innovation shifts
as someone intimately familiar with their present limits in
Afghanistan on a daily basis. Things have “gotten easier, but
we’re not quite there yet,” he says.

However, Nic Robertson, CNN’s senior international correspondent,
believes networks are much closer to being there. He joined CNN in 1990
as an engineer, and installed the network’s satellite in the garden of the
Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War. His career has
spanned several wars in many regions; he says that transmitting live from
battle zones is “vastly, immeasurably” different from what it once was.

Robertson speaks to how far we’ve come; Engel speaks to how much
further we have to go. Both men offered their views to B&C Programming
Editor Marisa Guthrie. An edited transcript follows.

From a technological standpoint, what has had the most impact
on how you do your job?

Richard Engel:
The thing that has profoundly affected my life in terms
of technology is that more people have cellphones. When I ! rst started as
a print reporter in Cairo [in 1996], I didn’t have a cellphone and no one
else had cellphones. Now, your taxi driver has a cellphone, the guy who
sells a sandwich from a cart in Kabul has a cellphone. That has made it
much easier for me to get information.

When I go to Afghanistan, pretty much everyone has a cellphone. You
can call the local chief or the local police of! cer and talk to them directly,
and even ask them to take video of something. And if they’re switched on,
they can send you the video.


What about the way you transmit video in the field?
Engel:
That has gotten easier, but we’re not quite there yet. The impression
that you can just carry a suitcase, unzip it and suddenly you’re doing
live television is false.

You work with BGAN in the war zone a lot.

Engel:
That’s the standard technology. And a BGAN [terminal] is about
the size of a laptop computer. But the honest truth is, it only works half
the time. It freezes. It drops out. You can have radio interference. If I’m at
a breaking news story and I have 15 live requests and I’m using a BGAN,
I can guarantee that not all of them are going to work.

Is it even possible to get out a live shot in some of the more
remote areas of Afghanistan?

Engel:
It’s best to bring it back to [the NBC bureau in] Kabul and broadcast
it from there. We were in a place called the Arghandab valley recently.
And the Arghandab is a very, very horrible place; rough, hot, a Taliban
center, one of the most dangerous places in southern Afghanistan. My
cameraman [Bredun Edwards] and I were with U.S. troops and we were
in a very seriously firefight. Several soldiers just a few feet away from us
were seriously injured, and we captured this entire incident on video.
So, we wanted to turn around something quickly for that night’s Nightly
News
. But just to feed about five to 10 minutes of video took us about
eight hours. We did get the spot on that night, but it drove us crazy. It
kept dropping out; it kept freezing. But that’s become my life. A few years
ago, we wouldn’t have been able to feed from that remote outpost at all.
That video would have had to wait until we got back to Kabul.

And how long would it have taken to get back to Kabul?

Engel:
From this base to get back to Kabul we had to walk to another
base, then drive to another base and then fly to two more bases. It would
have taken us three days to get back to Kabul.

You were in Baghdad for CNN in 1991 when Saddam
Hussein let CNN mount a satellite in the garden of
the Al-Rashid Hotel during the Gulf War. So, how
much have things changed technologically?

Nic Robertson:
Hugely, vastly and immeasurably. If you
think back to the days of the first Gulf War, the satellite
equipment weighed several hundred kilograms, and one
of the impediments of operating it was that you needed
a huge amount of power, so you needed a huge generator
to run it. Fast-forward to today; we’re now working with
laptop computers with cameras that use memory chips
and very small batteries, and transmitting on a BGAN
[terminal]. You get the same
effect requiring much less
power, with equipment that
fits in a backpack and weighs
about 10, 15 kilograms. And
if you’re careful, you can run
for four days. So, it’s quantifiably different. And, of course,
that gives you a huge amount
of " exibility with how far you
can go out with troops and
still be live on an embed.


But how dependable is
BGAN in remote places like Afghanistan?

Robertson:
BGAN always depends on the satellite capability. If you’re
on an air base, sometimes you can get interference from radar. Sometimes
if there are military operations going on, there will be satellite
phone service suppression in the area. There are always limitations.
But generally speaking, if you use BGAN properly and don’t have a
lot on interference, you can get a very good signal.

What is the next technological innovation for war-zone
reporting?

Robertson:
I’ve got a version of a BGAN [terminal] that I’m testing
at the moment that has expanded bandwidth. Just upping the bandwidth
from 256 to 384 kilobits [per second] gets us a much betterquality
signal. And it’s half the weight and size of the old version. I
would share and empathize with the frustrations of the BGAN; if you
have too many people using BGAN in a small area with one satellite,
there can be more interference and then that can be a limitation.
But I see us already moving beyond that. There are more
companies offering more varieties of equipment at wider
bandwidth right now.


And certainly improved cellphone technology will be
a factor.

Robertson:
I think we’re on the verge of something that is very big
in moving from 3G and 3½G to 4G. This means the video quality
coming from cellphones will be better, which means you can put the
cellphone technology into the camera so that your camera can always
be live. To have a signal of that quality, we’re talking more about an
urban environment or a developed country. In a war zone, it’s going
to take a number of years before we have such wide capability from
a camera to a satellite.

But it’s absolutely going to happen. We’re going to see the transmitter
size or the antenna size come down, and we’re going to see
that be integrated into the camera so that the camera will always be
live. Effectively, if you combine that with all of the millions of mobile
phones that there are in the world, it will give a broadcaster the opportunity
to use a huge amount of video material. Imagine a YouTube
network that doesn’t just play clips that people have [posted], but a
CNN/YouTube where you have live video being streamed from around
the world. I think we’re on the verge of that.

 

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