If 2003 was the year when satellite flyaway units matured into a more flexible and efficient video-delivery system, 2004 may prove to be the year when cellular phones do the same. The BBC has begun using 2.5G cellular phones from Nokia to deliver video files from the field, a move that may make the days of voice-only reports from the field a thing of the past.
"The video quality is the same as a single ISDN satellite phone and is better than the first satellite phones were," says BBC Project Manager Justen Dyche. "But it can only be used for store and forward, not for live streaming."
The BBC currently has 80 Nokia 3650 phones in the field. The phones cost about $250 each and can store up 128MB of data, enough to hold two minutes of video and audio. The phones won't replace the need for satellite phones or trucks because they are unable to send live reports, but the BBC will use them to send back early reports from a disaster site.
"You reach the point where some image is better than nothing," says head of newsgathering Adrian Van Klaveren. "For a disaster, we'll be able to get images from the dispatchers, whom we send out on motorbikes ahead of the satellite trucks."
Sending the video, he says, is as simple as placing a phone call. That simplicity, along with the phones' cost, means that the millions of people who may one day own similar phones will be able to become "individual newscasters." Already, the BBC is figuring out what needs to be done to take in content from a new class of video stringers. Van Klaveren says the BBC is contemplating setting up a registry for those interested in submitting video, allowing the network to know a little more about the people submitting video. "It's another editorial process we'll need to invent."
File transfer isn't instantaneous. It takes about 20 minutes to transmit a file with 70 seconds of 15-fps video at the highest resolution. Lowering image quality can reduce that time to five minutes. If the cellular service is cut off during the transmission, the reporter needs to restart the transmission process.
Dyche believes that the video quality will only get better. The limiting factor, he notes, is the processing power of the handset, not the camera quality or data rate. Mobile phone chipsets are already being developed that will be able to improve that processing power. "Those chipsets will accelerate the video-capture quality so the phone can record consumer-camcorder-quality video. Now all we need are the mobile phone manufacturers to see that there is a commercial reward in doing it."
When a reporter sends in a file, the video portion of the phone call is stripped out and placed on a playout server. Dyche says no transcoding is required to ready the video for playback. The phones are also equipped with audio recorders so that they can be used as a backup for radio reporters.
The first report to be done using the phones was from a tugboat traveling alongside U.S. "toxic ghost ships" that recently arrived in Britain to be cleaned. Reporter Richard Bilton filed the report from the tugboat while other crews on the boat had to wait until they were back on shore to have access to a satellite truck.
"The mobile-phone technology will always be at the edge of what we do," says Van Klaveren, "but it's one of those things that will enable us to get on the air with images faster. It's an extra weapon in the armory."