AFN gets $20M channel upgrade

U.S. troops got a real morale boost earlier this month when the American Forces Information Service (AFIS) awarded a $20 million contract to Scientific Atlanta to upgrade the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) Satellite Network.

AFIS, which provides radio and TV programming to U.S. personnel in 142 countries, will replace outdated analog broadcast technology with a complete digital video compression and transmission system, and its companion receive units.

This new technology will allow AFIS to expand the number of Armed Forces Network (AFN) TV channels from one to three, and the number of AFN radio stations from one to eight - all while using the same satellite signal.

That means AFIS can give its nearly 1 million customers something Americans at home take for granted: "The chance for turning the dial," said Melvin Russell, director of the AFRTS in Alexandria, Va.

AFIS will begin delivering 650 receive units in September or October and expects to complete the first phase of installations by next June.

However, as a contract option, AFIS also expects to expand services to Navy ships, where, at the moment, they only get radio broadcasts and tapes of past TV broadcasts. Tests are under way to determine the feasibility of providing such live transmissions to ships at sea anywhere in the world, Russell said.

Although TV and radio are taken for granted in the United States, they provide crucial underpinnings for American communities around the world. Currently, the AFRTS tries to balance providing news and information of interest in the overseas community with news and entertainment from the community back home.

AFIS now is able to expand the scope and reach of the AFRTS because of the new capabilities in Scientific Atlanta's PowerVu technology.

PowerVu allows broadcast organizations to send audio, video, text and data in one transmission, said Paul Kosac, vice president of sales at Scientific Atlanta in Atlanta. The signal is compressed and encrypted for efficient and safe transmission.

PowerVu also allows users to allocate bandwidth and data transmission rates dynamically for different types of programming. For example, sports broadcasts, to be acceptable, typically require higher transmission rates than a news program, Kosac said. Although PowerVu is Scientific Atlanta's third generation of digital technology, the company actually began developing many of the feature sets as part of the Beta-Multiplexed Analog Component (B-MAC) system the AFRTS now uses.

"They used all the functionality that B-MAC offered," Kosac said. "They optimized the system in terms of understanding everything the system had to offer."

Such technical terms might mean nothing to most AFN viewers or listeners, but the practical implications will be obvious.

Under the current system, the AFRTS is faced with meeting the diverse tastes of its user base with only one channel each of TV and radio.

For TV, that means only a select number of sitcoms and dramas can be shown. Additionally, most shows run about a year late because they are distributed by tape to local broadcast units as one way to save precious signal bandwidth. Meanwhile, AFN radio's broadcast day is divided into one- to three-hour segments that, in the course of a day, cover different popular programs.

Beginning next June, AFN will offer three channels: entertainment, news and sports, and "alternative programming," which will cull material from the Public Broadcasting System as well as such popular cable networks as Disney and Discovery. The eight new radio channels each will focus on a specific format, covering everything from rock and adult contemporary to country and classical music.

The expanded programming will be a welcome relief to the AFRTS service providers as well. Not only will it make program distribution easer - no more tapes to be mailed - it will make it easer to satisfy the AFN audience, Russell said. "No one else in the world would try to do what we do" with such a limited format, he said.

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