Reporting from the frontline

by Staff Reporter | September 20th, 2012

Zeina Khodr, roving correspondent for Al Jazeera English

Martin Turner from Inmarsat, Nabil Bensoussia from Safa Telecom, Josh Mainka and Zeina Khodr from Al Jazeera English, discuss the challenges of reporting from remote areas and conflict zones.

As television viewers, we expect to see the rebels enter Ajdabiya in Libya. We are no longer content with the news of the Green Square, in Tripoli, being liberated. We want to watch it as it happens.

Zeina Khodr, a roving correspondent for Al Jazeera English channel, was once filming amidst firing and carried on assuming that it was outgoing firing. It was only when an onlooker rushed her and the cameraman into the vehicle that she realised it was incoming firing.

It is not easy to comprehend the courage of the men and women who report from such conflict zones. Less dramatic perhaps, but no less path-breaking, is the technology that allows a journalist to report from parts of the world that has no terrestrial infrastructure or from countries with hostile governments.

“Our newsgathering consists of a combination of MacBook Pro-based laptop newsgathering (solutions) coupled with traditional satellite newsgathering. Our camera crews are equipped with Hughes HNS 9201 BGAN units which they use for Live and Store and Forward transmissions from the field with the help of Quicklink software. Al Jazeera English was the first broadcaster to use BGAN X-Stream 384Kbps connections in the field for live transmissions with Quicklink in 2009,” explains Josh Mainka, the acting head of news deployment at Al Jazeera English.

Nabil Ben Soussia, managing director, Safa Telecom

With previous technical stints at GlobeCast, BSkyb and Reuters, Mainka began his career as a radio technician for the military. Mainka’s duties for Al Jazeera include running the network’s satellite newsgathering department, planning news operations and consulting with SNG providers for major purchases. Having been with Al Jazeera since its inception in 2006, Mainka and his team have done their bit towards helping the Middle East-based channel acquire iconic status with live reports from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya and Syria.

“The conflict in Libya was a huge challenge to broadcasters, especially in the first six months when the situation on the ground was extremely fluid in the east of the country. We used small laptop equipped teams on the front line, and vehicle mounted Fly Drive DSNG systems a few kilometres away from the front for higher quality lives.”

While the ‘new kid on the block’ Al Jazeera, had the advantage of shopping for satellite equipment at a time when technology in mobile satellite services was beginning to undergo user-friendly changes in size, portability, reliability and cost, Martin Turner, the erstwhile head of news gathering for BBC had to grapple with a different sort of challenge.

“The key challenge at the BBC was not with traditional flyaways or with the space segment, but with the very large fleet of L-band terminals which were spread across the organisation’s global bureau network.

“Ensuring software and firmware were up to date was hard because it was understandably not a priority for journalists trying to meet deadlines. Naturally, where firmware was not current, this introduced variables into the operation which could lead to operational problems. With such a sizeable fleet and a wide range of technical interest and knowledge, the only way to address this was through constant communication,” says Martin Turner, recently appointed as director of media business, Inmarsat.

Martin Turner, director of media business, Inmarsat

“The technology that journalists now have at their disposal is absolutely extraordinary,” says Turner.

“The capability in a smartphone alone is more extensive than anything that existed even five years ago. The idea that a single device can enable you to go live for TV or radio from anywhere with WIFI or 3G is amazing. Equally, it is no exaggeration to say that mobile satellite services have changed the way that we experience the world.

“I remember using an Inmarsat A terminal in the early 1990s in Egypt. This provided a broadcast quality audio solution (using ISDN) and it was not exactly portable – but it transformed the quality of our radio reporting. Equally, the introduction of BGAN services made it possible to send HD quality video from almost anywhere in the world.”

More portable equipment

Technological innovations have brought with it portability, a crucial feature for reporting from conflict zones with rapidly developing news.

“Advances in technology, coupled with greater reliability have enabled us to reduce the amount of equipment we deploy to cover large stories,” explains Mainka.

Broadcasters need to be able to troubleshoot problems themselves because there is a very wide range of technical capability in the people using satellite solutions. The equipment used with those solutions is becoming more sophisticated and this places an ever greater burden on the people on the ground, so it is vital that we make the process of supporting news gatherers as simple as possible – Martin Turner, Inmarsat

Reporting from Misurata, Libya
“A report from Al Jazeera reporter, James Bays, using one of the Fly Drives DSNGs near the front line. This was using a Vislink 1.2m Fly Drive equipped with a Link Research wireless camera system. The set up time from parking the vehicle, to going live was as quick as six minutes using this system.”
– Josh Mainka

He elaborates, “In the past, especially in terms of satellite newsgathering, we’d historically deploy large fully redundant systems as excess baggage for news operations. The weight for these systems was typically 800 kgs which stretched both budgets and the portability of the team once on location.

“Our Vislink Fly Drive systems now pack down to eighteen IATA compliant flight cases and once on the ground, the system can be fitted onto a suitable four wheel drive vehicle, giving us our own highly mobile asset. Typically, the weight of these systems, including generators and wireless camera systems, is under 300 kgs.

“With a recent upgrade to our Vislink DVE 5100 Exciters, we’re now broadcasting in high definition from the Turkish-Syrian border with a Vislink Fly Drive system over a 6Mhz Eutelsat satellite slot using DVB-S2, 8PSK encoding.”

Cost implications of Ka-band

Perhaps one of the most critical technological innovations is yet to be experienced on the ground with the relatively recent large-scale deployment of Ka-band satellites. Yahsat’s Y1B with its Ka-band spot beams and the imminent deployment of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, among other satellites, promise to bring down costs of satellite capacity.

“Live transmissions from remote areas will no longer be the preserve of established news channels such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera,” says Nabil Ben Soussia, managing director of Safa Telecom. His team has a plan in place to allow second and third tier TV channels in the MENA region to enter the hitherto exclusive area of live transmissions in areas not supported by terrestrial networks.

We are working with Yahsat to provide an affordable solution with YahClickGo. The solution will increase the quality by 10 times while bringing down the price by eight times, with payments as low as US $100 per gigabyte – Nabil Ben Soussia, Safa Telecom

“We are working with Yahsat to provide an affordable solution with YahClickGo. The solution will increase the quality by 10 times while bringing down the price by eight times, with payments as low as US $100 per gigabyte. Previously 40-minute transmissions would cost around US $800 – with the new Ka-band enabled solution, it will cost US $100 and with better quality. ”

Zeina Khodr, a roving correspondent for Al Jazeera English channel

With an antenna to be fixed on a car, Nabil concedes that this solution is not for conflict zones. “However,” he adds, “With the antennas costing just US $15,000, in addition to other equipment, broadcasters in places like Sudan and similar countries will now find live transmissions, from any part of their country, an affordable proposition. ”

A proposed Point of Presence (POP) will solve the issue of coverage and offer broadcasters and other end-users of MSS services, the seamless option to shift between satellite operators depending on coverage in that particular area.

Describing this initiative, jointly developed by Quicklink and Safa Telecom, as unique, Nabil says, “The end user’s studio will connect to our gateway which gives the broadcaster the flexibility to shift between Inmarsat, Thuraya or Yahsat as per available coverage in a particular area. Previously, broadcasters had dedicated lines to a particular satellite operator not allowing for any flexibility on the ground. And because of the competitive costs offered by Ka-band satellites, we hope to cater to not just broadcasters, but other verticals that need high definition, real-time video. NGOs such as UNHCR and UNESCO and especially companies in the upstream oil and gas sector will find it affordable to remotely monitor sites through HD real-time video.”

Our Vislink Fly Drive systems now pack down to eighteen IATA compliant flight cases and once on the ground, the system can be fitted onto a suitable four wheel drive vehicle, giving us our own highly mobile asset – Josh Mainka, Al Jazeera

Cost takes second place to the unfolding story

Josh Mainka, acting head of news deployment for Al Jazeera English at Ras Lanuf, Libya

Martin Turner concedes cost is crucial, but “has to be seen in the context of the story being covered.” Speaking from his years of experience in the BBC, Turner says, “If the news is big enough, cost becomes less of a problem. But given that those sorts of events are by definition relatively rare, there is a constant drive to try to reduce costs and, wherever possible, efforts are made to use the least cost routing. It’s certainly true that improvements in terrestrial connectivity, whether broadband or fibre, have led to less dependence on satellite-based solutions, particularly in Africa as submarine cables have been connected to East Africa.”

Zeina Khodr of Al Jazeera, a veteran of many reporting stints from conflict zones, agrees that cost of connection (reportedly US $20 per minute) has never come in the way of telling a story. “I have never been told not to use a Thuraya phone or a BGAN terminal for cost reasons – the story being told is of primary importance.”

Now preparing for another assignment, Khodr plans the trip with her cameraman. “I have learnt to check as to what mobile networks work in that country. We keep two or three SIM cards as backup. You begin to think about what could go wrong. You think about electricity. You learn from the problems you have faced and try to do things differently. For instance, in one situation, I had a 3G-enabled Ipad – I connected to our studio in Doha via Skype and broadcast the footage live.”

Innovations from the ground upwards

“In my experience,” affirms Turner, “the best solutions always arise from smart news people solving the problems they face every day. Absolutely the most crucial factor is in-depth knowledge of the industry and the challenges it faces.

“At the BBC, the most successful innovations were developed by the people who worked in the business on a daily business. For example, we developed a digital replacement for an analogue tape deck that was entirely the result of collaboration between people in the business. It was nominated for an IBC innovation award and is now in use across the BBC.”

Describing the conflict zones in Syria and Libya as especially challenging, Turner says, “It is a common tactic for governments to try to prevent satellite terminals being used and this is something that has been seen in both countries. There is very little that operators and solutions providers can do in such situations — however journalists are extremely resourceful, as the continuing images from Syria demonstrate.”

With a ringside view of the challenges of reporting from Libya and Syria, Mainka says, “With mobile phone networks down due to the fighting, we were reliant on Thuraya and Iridium networks for coordination with our hub in Doha. When these networks weren’t available due to jamming, we used Skype over BGAN standard connections or small Thuraya IP terminals when their network was available.

With mobile phone networks down due to the fighting, we were reliant on Thuraya and Iridium networks for coordination with our hub in Doha. When these networks weren’t available due to jamming, we used Skype over BGAN standard connections or small Thuraya IP terminals when their network was available – Josh Mainka, Al Jazeera English

Thuraya IP was also a useful tool for journalists who could set them up quickly to check news wires over the terminal’s WLAN connection before live broadcasts.”

From low-end solutions like removing brand names from the backpack to ensure anonymity in a war zone, to high-tech GPS enabled  tracking systems, solutions providers such as Nabil’s Safa telecom, are redefining portability, reliability and security. Among the latest  innovations is the WiFi system that allows reporting from a distance of about 100 metres from the vehicle.

“The Hughes antenna and terminal along with the Quicklink system powered by YahClickGo or other providers will enable reporting from a distance offering greater mobility and security to journalists on the ground,” explains Nabil.

Technology easing the pressures of frontline reporting

Journalists on the ground have never been this equipped although they have never felt this much pressure to get the story. It is no accident that Zeina Khodr would know everything about the unfolding situation in Syria but she would be the first to concede that that she knows very little about the technology that allows her to report to the studio.

“As journalists, you have so much on your plate to worry about in terms of getting the story right…I suppose that is why the cameraman is typically trained to use the satellite equipment. However, I believe as journalists, we should know the basics of how to operate the satellite-based equipment.”

On the pressures of reporting, Martin Turner concurs and says, “Events that previously were witnessed in retrospect are now seen in real time. While that is obviously a major change, it is important not to forget the impact it has had on the way journalists work. When I began covering international events in the 1990s, cell phone coverage was patchy and you could spend much more time gathering material without editors bothering you. Today, journalists face the challenge of meeting a deadline that is always ‘now’ and so there is less time to gather and sift material than there used to be.”

Having won a prestigious international award for reporting from Libya, Zeina Khodr knows a thing or two about breaking news but says, “While you want to get the scoop, I don’t believe in always being the first. Sometimes it is better to be the second and be accurate. Ultimately, however, it is about pictures. I can talk for an hour but without the pictures it does not have the same impact. We can say people are ecstatic – but it is about actually seeing the faces of the people.”

Expanding the potential for live broadcasts

Helping to make those all important live feeds more affordable, Nabil of Safa Telecom says that broadcasters are looking for a one-stop shop for multiple solutions.

“Earlier, they were restricted in terms of providers because of the complexity of the implementation of the systems, especially the QoS from the gateway of the satellite  operator to their studio.

“What we have now is a touch screen, where the cameraman has to select his destination and encoding rate. From the Yahsat gateway, for instance, the reporter will connect to our POP and we will then transmit to the studio via their leased line. In a country where Yahsat has no coverage, the reporter will access Thuraya or Inmarsat. The reporter/cameraman will need to do his usual work and the engineering team will have only one link to care about, but can benefit from three to four satellite networks, accessing coverage when needed and saving cost or increasing quality when possible.”

Nabil believes that the existing market for Thuraya, Inmarsat and now Yahsat, will only get much bigger.

“We are devising one solution for the end-user with one billing system. The system will be pre-paid with pre-loaded gigabytes – a solution ideal for small broadcasters, freelancers and other verticals. This is the way to grow the market beyond the big broadcasters.”

Technology apart, I want to leave you with the image of Zeina Khodr and her cameraman possibly using the WIFI feature the next time they have to report undetected on riots in Sudan even as police lobby tear gas at protesters.

“We got great footage,” she recalls (albeit with no WIFI). “We managed to do a walk and talk. Imagine if we had to pack up and go back to our office and feed it – we would have a lost a good hour and a half.”

 

What do broadcasters want?

Martin Turner, director of media business, Inmarsat and erstwhile head of newsgathering operations at the BBC, states: “I know from my own experience that broadcasters want information and control and it’s my aim to provide those to them. Broadcasters need to be able to troubleshoot problems themselves because there is a very wide range of technical capability in the people using satellite solutions. The equipment used with those solutions is becoming more sophisticated and this places an ever greater burden on the people on the ground, so it is vital that we make the process of supporting news gatherers as simple as possible.

“Sophisticated tools for cost  control already exist but I have to confess to sometimes being slightly overwhelmed by what they could do so, I believe there should be a constant drive for the simplest, most usable system possible.”

 

 

Reporting from Benghazi

“Operating during any conflict presents many challenges. Our teams are expected to not only do their job safely but news gather in incredibly fluid and dangerous situations where communications systems are unreliable and co-ordination between teams is difficult.

“Al Jazeera English invested heavily in covering the civil war in Libya and remained on the story through the fall of Tripoli, the killing of Gadaffi near Sirte, to the recent historic the latest innovations is the WiFi system that allows reporting from a distance of about 100 metres from the vehicle.

“The stand-out moment for me was watching Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reporting live from Green Square, Tripoli, on a large screen in Benghazi’s Martyr’s Square, on the night the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces entered the city.”

– Josh Mainka

 

 

 

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