The Video Phone War: The New Technology Enabled Television Photographers to Provide Viewers with a Closer Look at the Early Days of the Fighting in Afghanistan. That Look, However, Wasn't Crystal Clear

By Wasserman, Elizabeth | American Journalism Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Video Phone War: The New Technology Enabled Television Photographers to Provide Viewers with a Closer Look at the Early Days of the Fighting in Afghanistan. That Look, However, Wasn't Crystal Clear


Wasserman, Elizabeth, American Journalism Review


If Vietnam was America's first "television war," then the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan will go down in the annals of history as our first "videophone war." During the first week of the conflict, the closest views of the fighting were provided in live reports by correspondents using videophones--literally, cameras plugged into satellite phones.

It's true that reporters traveling with rebels in the remote mountains of northern Afghanistan never seemed to transmit much more than a jerky talking head or a dark and grainy night picture punctuated with the occasional explosion of green.

But despite sometimes inferior-quality pictures, the videophone may prove as revolutionary in war coverage as some of the other technological milestones we've seen over the past two centuries. During the Civil War, the telegraph was used to get word of casualties back from the battlefield. World War I ushered in the newsreel. Edward R. Murrow helped define the use of radio during the air raids on London during World War II. In Vietnam, television reporters recorded their stories but had to fly the footage out to Japan before it could be broadcast back home--delaying reports by several days. The Persian Gulf War marked the rise of the satellite uplink and the immediacy of live coverage.

The videophone has enabled television news crews to venture out into the danger zone in northern Afghanistan, untethered to the customary satellite uplink they need to beat the other guy on the air with the live shot. Over rugged mountain routes, crews are able to tote scaled-down versions of equipment that usually weighs in excess of a ton. "This stuff is small, compact," says Dick Tauber, CNN's vice president for satellites and circuits. "It can fit into two briefcases, one having one or two satellite phones, the other having the videophone. With that gear plus a car battery for power, you're ready to go."

The videophone is actually a new twist on a technology that businesses have been using for years: videoconferencing. The videophones, which cost about $8,000 each, combine videoconferencing equipment with "store and forward" technology--which helps compress very-high-bandwidth feeds so they can be transmitted via satellite. The satellite phones also cost about $8,000.

One of the most popular videophone units with crews from CNN is called the TH2--the Talking Head-made by 7E Communications in London. This videophone links via a standard ISDN socket to a high-bandwidth satellite phone, the Inmarsat GAN terminal, which provides a dial-up two-way connection via satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the equator. Some of the networks have even customized their own versions.

News executives consider the videophone reports only one element of a broader coverage plan. They've been installing more traditional satellite uplinks in places like Islamabad, Pakistan, and, in some cases, northern Afghanistan. The videophone is "a good first recourse to use while we transport our uplink and set it up," says Frank Governale, CBS News' vice president for operations. "There are some rare situations when we can't get the proper permission to operate an uplink in a location, so videophone is the only alternative way to get pictures out. …

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