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George S. Patton's speech to the Third Army / Leonard Pitts' column
/ CIA Factbook file on Afghanistan / Know your Foe! / (The Ground Zero Cross) / (A Poem for A Marine at Christmas / Video Phone Technology /

Videophone Technology

Video Chip technology

By Jim Krane, Associated Press

(Copyright 2001, A.P., all rights reserved)

Editor's note: The original article was unlinked and without illustrations. I've provided pictures from the websites mentioned and links to them. My comments, like these, are in maroon. To get broadcast quality you need not just a single piece of equipment, but rather an entire system. Although there are other systems, cost for the gear described below can top $25,000 US. Air time for a 64kbs channel can range from $5.00 to $7.00 a minute. To power the equipment some reporters buy generators smuggled out of Kabul and sold in the north by black marketeers. Fox News said they recently paid $1,200 US for a single generator.

NEW YORK (October 9, 2001 9:34 a.m. EDT) - To CNN's audience, the air war in Afghanistan looks like a series of primitive green flashes that light up an inky night sky.

Crude as they are, the images are made possible by a new technology - a lunch-box-sized "videophone" that streams low-bandwidth video over a portable satellite telephone. The footage is captured by a lone cameraman on a mountaintop 40 miles north of Kabul.

Other television reporters at Afghan rebel camps and in neighboring Uzbekistan - basically anywhere they can lug about 20 pounds of equipment - are using videophones to do characteristically jittery standup reports.

While the images appear primitive, they are a big improvement over voice-only live reports from far-flung correspondents during previous conflicts, which were typically accompanied visually by simple maps.

Without the $7,950 videophone, manufactured by London's 7E Communications Ltd. (external link)., live video from a remote place like Afghanistan requires a satellite uplink facility comprised of at least a ton of recording and broadcast gear. Operated by a crew of three to four, the gear is usually housed inside a van.

"Moving all that equipment is a big operation, especially in a war zone," said CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan.

The videophone has allowed individual television reporters to wriggle close to the action, chiming in via jerky, pixelated video from the some of the planet's furthest reaches.

The device first grabbed attention in April, when a CNN reporter connected one to a car battery and broadcast live images of a U.S. spy plane crew departing China's Hainan island.

The videophone allowed CNN to broadcast its footage almost a half-hour earlier than rival broadcasters, who drove to an uplink facility to transmit their video.

The pictures riled competing journalists and Chinese authorities, who detained the reporter and confiscated the videophone.

Click here for 7E's .pdf file on their videophone. It's not a sat phone. This is the first part of a broadcast videophone system. The TH1 is used mainly as a CODEC, or video and audio compressor. In landline service the videophone could communicate with a unit like it on the end of a normal phone line. A satellite telephone by comparison, does not perform video or advanced audio compression. Such work is microprocessor intensive, requiring specialized equipment like the "Talking Head" unit pictured above. 7E recently announced a second model, the TH2. For more on coding in general click here. The TH1 plugs into a sat phone like that described below.

More here on Video Chip technology, the enabling technology for visual telephony

Although the device is considered of little use in the United States - where most areas are within reach of satellite or microwave transmission facilities - CNN reporters used videophones after the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack, transmitting from much closer to "ground zero" than broadcast trucks could reach.

Videophone broadcasts require three separate components, said Gerry Gutman, president of Richtec Inc. (external link) of Ocala, Fla., the North American distributor of the 7E videophone.

The 9-pound videophone itself is used mainly to compress the video for transmission. Few reporters rely on the rudimentary golf-ball shaped camera that accompanies it, Gutman said. Most reporters connect it to their own cameras - a portable digital video camera will do.

A camera as least as good as this Cannon XL1 is used. This model costs $3,500 US.

To stream the video to headquarters, the videophone must be connected to a satellite phone, a device about the size of a laptop computer. The sat phone recommended by 7E, manufactured by England's Ottercom Ltd (external link)., costs $9,950. [Pictured below]

Click here for Ottercom's .pdf file on their sat phone pictured above. It's the second part in the system, used to actually send a signal to the satellite. It's an Inmarsat or GAN terminal, a required part to transmit on that wireless carrier's network. What they call the Global Area Network. The flat panel on the tripod is the antenna. You hook the CODEC/videophone described above into this GAN terminal.

The phone relays the signal via a communications satellite parked in geostationary orbit at 22,300 miles above the earth. Since the signal travels at the speed of light, a "live" satellite broadcast is actually delayed by a half-second, Gutman said.

The setup also requires installation of a $6,500 7E receiving device at news headquarters that decodes the signal for broadcast. [Pictured below]

What 's needed at the broadcasting studio to automatically receive the incoming, encoded and compressed video traffic.

Click here for 7E's .pdf file on this receiver.

Besides CNN, Gutman said he has sold videophones to major television networks including the British Broadcasting Corp., Fox, ABC and NBC.

Associated Press Television News has also supplied staff in the Afghan theater with videophones, said Sandy MacIntyre, head of news at APTN.

The units' primitive broadcast quality stems from the limitations of portable satellite telephones, which can transmit no faster than 128 kilobits per second, just over twice the speed of the 56 kbps dial-up modems used by home computers, Gutman said.

Large satellite uplink facilities typically stream video at 15 megabits per second, requiring more than 100 times the bandwidth.

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Resources

The satellite carrier most used for videophone service is Inmarsat (external link). Here's a press release from the Inmarsat site with more details on how a video phone system works. By way of introduction, GAN stands for Global Area Network, a proprietary radio standard Inmarsat developed. Many, many, manufacturers design GAN compatible equipment. GAN provides a 64Kbs rate, which can be doubled to 128Kbs, a full ISDN rate. To do this you need two compatible sat phones. What they call GAN terminals.

Inmarsat the power behind live TV and radio broadcasting in Afghanistan

Broadcasters including CNN and BBC turn to Inmarsat to feed the world's thirst for news and developments in the region

Viewers around the world are able to watch live events unfold in Afghanistan from many of the world's television and radio stations thanks to advanced imaging technology utilising Inmarsat's Global Area Network (GAN) solution.

Broadcasters from all around the world, including the BBC and CNN have been drawn to Afghanistan to record the UN sanctioned strikes on suspected terrorists in the region and are using Inmarsat's satellite network to broadcast live from the field. The only way to get the news in real-time back live from where it is actually happening is via Inmarsat, which can deliver ISDN speed connectivity, high availability and high reliability.

Presenters can operate in the field filming live through a video conference unit called the TH2 Talking Heads or Videophone from 7E Communications in London, which links via a standard ISDN socket to the Inmarsat GAN terminal which provides a dial up two way connection to the home studio via satellites orbiting 36,000 km above the equator. GAN provides a 64kbit/s two-way channel from virtually any landmass in the world. The speed can be increased to 128kbit/s by harnessing two GAN channels.

Nic Robertson, CNN Senior Correspondent, who has just left Kabul, Afghanistan said: "Videophones put you in the heart of a story and allow you to broadcast live within minutes, following the changes in a story and without having to go back to base. For example, in Kabul we could simply unfold the Inmarsat antenna and open the videophone box, connect the camera and transmit live pictures immediately.

"The need to haul hundreds of kilogrammes of cumbersome satellite equipment and feel restricted by a satellite truck is now history. On this trip, it made getting across the border into Afghanistan not only physically easier but allowed our hi-tech equipment to escape the detection of the Taleban border guards," he added.

Inmarsat communications solutions have been part of the broadcasters armoury for some time and are often used by teams flying into the world's trouble spots in advance of more permanent and costly deployment of fixed uplink capabilities.

For example, many audio broadcasters use Inmarsat GAN to provide a high quality radio broadcast facility from the road, for example BBC Radio cars are often equipped with GAN in the UK for Radio 4 and Radio 5 broadcasts. The Inmarsat mini-M voice and low level data terminal is also used by many broadcasters for live voice links, or communicating with the studio.

"What makes the situation in Afghanistan unique is that the news organizations of the world are relying on Inmarsat GAN to provide them with mainstream newsgathering capabilities in the field for a longer period of time than they would normally do," said Michael Butler, managing director of Inmarsat Limited. "The news teams need a highly reliable and robust system, which they can pick up and move around as they cover developments, and Inmarsat GAN provides that.

"GAN is a tried and tested technology which has been operational for almost two years and is used by many businesses around the world to access their corporate databases or conduct video conferences when there is no reliable telecommunications solution available," he added.

Since the terrorist attacks on the US on 11th September, Inmarsat partners have reported a surge in demand for GAN terminals and associated equipment. When the US-led strikes on Taleban and terrorist targets started on 7th October, the Inmarsat network saw a large increase in usage which was tracked by Inmarsat's advanced network management system and assigned extra capacity to meet the increased demand.

More here on Video Chip technology, the enabling technology for visual telephony

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Video Phone Technology / George S. Patton's speech to the Third Army / Leonard Pitts' column / CIA Factbook file on Afghanistan / Know your Foe!

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