Ratings up for desktop video

Watching television on the job is usually considered taboo, but not at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Emergency Operations Center in San Francisco. There, it's a requirement. To increase productivity, officials are bringing satellite TV signals directly to employees' desktop PCs.

Hundreds of satellite TV channels beam live news and weather broadcasts, information from NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and universities, town hall meetings, distance-learning classes and videoconferences into the Emergency Operations Center. The corps pulls what it needs to produce briefings on floods, earthquakes, typhoons and terrorism.

Although the system roll-out is still under way, the agency has already seen benefits. "I can receive the satellite signals on my PC as I'm sitting here at my desk so I don't have to run over to my Emergency Operations Center," said Jerry Lollar, who manages the center. "I can talk on the telephone while monitoring what's going on."

The General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service office in San Francisco and Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Distant Mirror Video Services Inc. are building the satellite video-to-desktop system. Before this project, the pair designed the Corps' satellite-based videoconferencing room at the Emergency Operations Center.

GSA officials report that business for various satellite services has been booming, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as agencies improve their contingency planning and emergency readiness. "We've seen more agencies since [Sept. 11] wanting us to increase the number of desktops connected to the satellite system," said John Archdeacon, FTS project integrator in San Francisco.

For the Army Corps of Engineers' desktop installation, GSA and Distant Mirror recommended using Hauppauge Computer Works Inc.'s WinTV video card on the corps' PCs, rather than risk incompatibility issues with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 that might arise if a software-only solution were used, Lollar said.

The Corps' rooftop satellite dishes receive signals from 23 satellites orbiting Earth. Those signals travel from the dishes down to an equipment rack, known as a head end system, which combines signals to create a composite signal incorporating all channels.

The composite signal then travels through coaxial cable to a programmable video distribution hub called Free Band from CCC Network Systems Inc., which delivers the signals to desktop PCs.

"Free Band allows satellite television channels to be delivered anywhere in a building on Category 5 cable," the kind most commonly used for local-area networks, said Lucy Cohen, Distant Mirror's chief financial officer. For smaller installations, Distant Mirror uses its own video distribution hub, called the Catalink.

For the Corps, video data is delivered to the desktop via a separate dedicated LAN (see box).

However, GSA also wanted to test the impact of satellite signals running with data on an office's existing LAN — a simpler, less expensive method, Archdeacon said.

GSA had just completed a feasibility trial on a Department of Health and Human Services LAN. Archdeacon installed a small digital satellite dish on the roof of the HHS building in San Francisco. He then installed coaxial cable and signal-boosting equipment between the rooftop dish and the office LAN.

A LAN server running Cisco Systems Inc.'s IP/TV client/server software distributes video signals to the PCs.

IP/TV must be loaded on each PC to view a satellite broadcast. "IP/TV calls up the IP address of the PC," Archdeacon said. "You click on the IP/TV icon, and it brings up the menu for the TV, from which you pick the program you want to see."

Archdeacon tested IP/TV to determine if it created a significant burden on the agency's data LAN network. "We discovered there was no impact on the throughput of the LAN," he said.

"We learned from the HHS trial that it takes fewer steps [than at the corps] to install satellite services at an agency by going directly from the rooftop satellite antenna to the receiver and LAN router, which is connected to the LAN server," he said. "The only wiring you need is a coaxial cable from the antenna to the receiver."

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From space to desktop

Satellite orbiting Earth — Relays commercial and private video signals to Earth.

Dish/antenna — Receives satellite signals.

Video distribution hub — Takes signals from antenna and distributes them to desktop PCs.

Desktop PC — Video signal is presented on screen in window that can be minimized to permit simultaneous work on other applications.

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