Satellite comm offers VTC at sea

Although viewers probably did not even question the technology that brought them a live TV interview with Defense Secretary William Perry from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington afloat in the Mediterranean earlier this month, Navy public affairs (PA) officials considered the broadcast a symbol of the way the service can harness tactical satellite-communications systems to improve communications with the public.

The ABC News interview with Perry, carried live on "This Week With David Brinkley," represented the most visible use to date of new, tactical Navy satellite communications and video teleconferencing (VTC) equipment to support the PA role, according to Lt. Cmdr. Bob Ross, a spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet.

In the past, once a Navy ship sailed over the horizon, it was not possible for TV to provide live reports. But new VTC systems, using satellite links supplied through both Defense Department satellites and commercial carriers, allow the Navy "to bring the public on board.... We are no longer limited by time and distance," Ross said.

This is particularly true when the Navy tries to tell its story over TV, Ross said. "On TV, if you don't have pictures, you don't have a story."

The Perry interview marked the national debut of afloat VTC to support the PA mission, Ross said, adding that the Navy has used it in the past to provide feeds for reporters from local TV stations in the Norfolk, Va., area, home port of the George Washington. Ross viewed this as an important morale and wel fare issue because families now can receive real-time information about deployed vessels and crews. The two-way nature of VTC also allows the ship's crew to see the broadcast in real time. "We don't have to wait for days to see the tape," Ross said.

Challenge Athena and Intelsat

The Navy said it used its Challenge Athena system to transmit the Perry interview back to an earth station in Hampton Roads, Va. Challenge Athena used transponders on commercial communications satellites operated by the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) to provide T-1 connectivity from the carrier.

The Hampton Roads earth station then fed the live video and audio of the Perry interview into the Navy's fiber-optic Video Information Exchange System to a VTC control center in Norfolk, according to Sandy Panuska, the VTC manager for the Atlantic Fleet.

The Perry broadcast used PictureTel Corp. VTC equipment running at a rate of 256 megabitsec, Panuska said, "which gives you pretty good quality with very little jerkiness, particularly if there is not much movement." ABC parked one of its satellite uplink trucks outside the VTC center and ran cabling into spare ports in the VTC center to pick up the feed from the ship, Panuska added.

FTS 2000 Links

Besides links to the Video Information Exchange System, the Norfolk VTC center also can access VTC networks on FTS 2000 - using PictureTel gear - and the AT&T Defense Commercial Telecommunications Network (DCTN), which uses Compression Labs Inc. equipment.

The Norfolk VTC center can bridge signals between any of these three systems, Panuska added. The center did that earlier this year, when it transmitted a Denver TV reporter's story from the George Washington back to a Denver TV station.

"On that one, we took the signal in from Hampton Roads and then sent it over DCTN to the Fitzsimmons Medical Center in Denver. The TV station hooked its cabling up to a port in Denver, pulled the audio and video and then transmitted it," Panuska said.

The Norfolk VTC center, Panuska said, supports all Navy ships equipped with VTC systems (including the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship in the Western Pacific), not just those in the Atlantic Fleet. The center can handle VTCs from up to eight ships at a time.

Panuska said the Navy set up the Norfolk VTC center four years ago, and since then the technology has become a "routine" part of Navy communications, with 90 percent of the system's capacity used on a monthly basis.

Ross said the Navy treats nontactical use of the VTC systems "the same way we treat space-available flights on aircraft. If it's available, we can use it. But I can also see some PA requirements getting a high priority."

Only the Beginning

Ross believes that the Navy has just started to tap the potential of using VTC and satellite systems to support public affairs, predicting that in the future "we will be able to show some very dramatic stories."

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