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Bringing the News Home

Screen shot of BBC News correspondent Alastair Leithead reporting live from Kabul for BBC World
News correspondents can now send in their video reports using nothing more than a domestic broadband link

Bringing the News Home


It was as long ago as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that the BBC's adventure into broadband for live television began. Guy Peham reports

As live editor at BBC News, I specialise in exploiting new technology for television and radio newsgathering. I wanted to use the internet to put our correspondents live on-air, using nothing more than a domestic broadband connection.

BBC News correspondent Alastair Leithead was based in New Orleans, covering the Katrina clear-up. He had a good broadband connection in his hotel, his room had a great view of the city, he had his own camera, and he wasn't fazed by new technology - in this case, an application called vPoint, originally designed as video conferencing software, which had been adapted for use as a broadcasting tool. It gave good audio with low delay, reasonable quality video and was user-friendly enough to be used by correspondents under pressure.

Live and in-vision

This technology is quietly revolutionising how BBC News covers live stories
A day or two later, I interviewed him live and in-vision from his hotel for a test in front of senior BBC News editors. The reaction was instant. The video quality was a huge leap forward from the old videophones. We could all see the great, grey mass of the Mississippi in the background and the sound quality was good. Plus it cost just a few dollars.

This technology is quietly revolutionising how BBC News covers live stories. As broadband spreads across the globe, especially in the developing world, it is beginning to bypass traditional means of gathering live news.

The first live, on-air report was from Helen Fawkes, the BBC's Kiev correspondent, covering the elections in Ukraine in March 2006. One of our technical team flew out to set up the gear and train her how to use it. The set-up is simple - correspondents can put themselves on-air in minutes. Total cost for camera, laptop, software and peripherals was less than US$9,000, and Helen achieved the broadcast using the basic broadband connection in her own home.

An offer that couldn't be refused

For the BBC's 24-hour global news and information channel BBC World, this was an offer that couldn't be refused. The ability to go live to a correspondent several times a day on a running story was welcomed with open arms. Quality is not so good as that of a satellite link of course, but the alternative would have been a great deal poorer: sound only, via a phone line or a mobile, perhaps overlaid with a rather dull on-screen graphic.

Since that time, this technology has spread to BBC News' 58 bureaux around the world. It's been crucial to our reporting of the conflict in Afghanistan, for example, where Alastair Leithead, now the BBC's man in Kabul, was keen to pick up where he left off. Using the city's WiMAX network (a turbo-charged version of Wi-Fi, covering a much wider area), Alastair was able to report live from a camera position on the roof of his own home, or move around the city doing wireless live two-ways more or less at will.

In the meantime, another technical development was starting to come on-stream that would allow the BBC to take vPoint pretty much anywhere, without being tied to a physical broadband connection. It came in the form of a small satellite terminal, called BGan (Broadband Global Area Network). Weighing just a few kilos, it slips neatly into a carry bag not much bigger than a laptop. You can take it on a plane, a helicopter, or in the back of a Land Rover, and it gives you a broadband connection of up to 256kps. Our correspondents have since used it in southern Afghanistan, the conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon, the Far East and the USA.

BBC News staff around the world are still feeling their way with this technology. There are a number of companies out there with rival products, and nothing stays the same for long. One thing is for sure: the kit is not going to get any slower, any heavier, or any less powerful.

BBC has more correspondents around the world than any other broadcaster. We've always been able to put them on-air live for radio and now television has finally caught up.

Guy Pelham
Guy Pelham is Live Editor for BBC Newsgathering

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