Real-Time Reporting

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq highlighted journalists’ need for lightweight, portable equipment such as video-phones, especially in areas where infrastructure is thin on the ground. But since then, the devices have emerged as a key weapon for Middle Eastern broadcasters seeking to compete with their global rivals and get to the story first.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  July 4, 2004

|~|sat3.gif|~||~|Middle Eastern broadcasters once relied on their international competitors to provide them with news from their own backyard. But since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the picture has often been reversed. More regional broadcasters have bought into satellite mobile technology, allowing them to break stories live from the scene and scoop their rivals. In turn, this has created a growing market for portable communications equipment, allowing vendors and operators to cash in. According to a survey of Middle East-based broadcasters conducted recently by the UK-based satellite operator, Inmarsat, all now use mobile technology to report from areas where terrestrial infrastructure and traditional uplink facilities can’t reach. In many cases, the stock approach is to use devices based on Inmarsat’s regional broadband global area network (RBGAN) as a mobile IP modem to send articles and pictures from the field, at a speed of up to 144Kbits/s. For live, point to point video links, Inmarsat’s global area network (GAN) terminals provide connections at either 64Kbits/s or 128Kbits/s, in combination with a portable video-phone. Increasingly, Middle Eastern broadcasters are now reaching a wider audience, either through their own networks or by providing breaking news to international media. Qatar-based Al Jazeera, for example, is currently undergoing an expansion of its studios in Paris and Washington and is preparing for the launch of an English language channel later this year. According to Inmarsat’s figures, the majority of regional broadcasters also now provide exclusive content to existing global players, such as CNN and the BBC. “One of the main drivers has been live broadcasting from the scene,” argues Samer Halawi, regional director for the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, Inmarsat. “The regional media used to rely on CNN and BBC to get the footage, but now it’s the other way round. You now see clips from Abu Dhabi TV and Al Jazeera on CNN. The media have been taking their businesses from a local audience to an international level,” he adds. Abu Dhabi TV is one such example. The channel invested in portable satellite equipment before the Iraq War, during which it claims to have increased its viewership by 46%. Following the war, the broadcaster says it retained a 27% rise. But the improvement did not come cheap. “Key to this has been a substantial investment in our structure, bringing the right people and the right technology to the station, in order to improve our competitiveness,” says Dr. Abbas Mustafa Sadiq, director of research, Abu Dhabi TV. Although the video-phone shot to prominence in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its usage has continued since. Video conferencing via portable terminals is now a common sight on TV, both on regional and international channels. Al Jazeera, for example, has bought several video-phones from Austrian vendor, Scotty Tele-Transport Corporation, to report live and compile, store and forward articles, in combination with a GAN terminal. In most environments, the broadcaster deploys heavier devices which uplink to an Arabsat satellite, but uses video-phones when doing so would be dangerous or inconvenient. “They have limitations — you cannot do things that you can do with normal facilities, the reporter can’t move [while speaking] and wherever we can use normal facilities, we use them,” says Hussain Jaffar, manager of Al Jazeera’s engineering department. “But sometimes you have to sacrifice the quality of the picture to get the news before everybody else,” he adds. Aside from the regional media, international broadcasters have been increasing their deployment of portable devices, particularly for reports from regions like the Middle East and North Africa, where infrastructure is often scarce. At some points during the second Gulf War, BBC News 24 was conducting up to 30 videoconferences per day via GAN terminals. It now claims to have well over 100 deployed around the world, up from 12 before the conflict began. One recent example was the use of a video-phone by reporter, Ishbel Matheson, last month for a report with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its leader, John Garang. The broadcaster has also recently invested in IP-based technology that enables reporters to broadcast live reports to news bulletins using laptop PCs. The software, developed by video compression technology provider, QuickLink, allows journalists to use whatever IP connectivity is available, such as a satellite phone or wireless local area network (WLAN). In Iraq, the BBC used a previous system from Quicklink to store and forward reports. “BBC Newsgathering now has Quicklink systems deployed around the world. We will be updating all our systems with the latest software to take advantage of the new facility that provides live feeds at low data rates,” says Guy Pelham, live editor, BBC Newsgathering. Going forward, the challenge for Inmarsat will be to persuade broadcasters to invest in new systems that would improve the quality of their video broadcasts and allow their journalists to work more efficiently. The operator will also be looking for broadcasters to fill space on its upcoming broadband global area network (BGAN) platform, which, unlike GAN and RBGAN, will offer connectivity via both IP and ISDN. “RBGAN is a transitional service until BGAN comes along. BGAN will be a more cost effective system because it uses new technology and less resources to transmit,” says Halawi. Another question is the extent to which video-phones can replace traditional equipment. The poor images they provide, Inmarsat argues, can add to the mood set by reports. “The viewers [associate] the granularity with breaking news, so the reports attract more viewers,” says Halawi. But broadcasters say they will continue to use them only as a last resort. “Video-phones are a weapon of first response,” says Pelham. “You can jump on a plane with them and they’re a good way to get pictures and sound back, albeit at not very good quality, while you’re waiting for the heavier equipment to arrive,” he adds. ||**||

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