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Videophones give reporters an edge

Reporters covering the terrorist attacks use the technology to broadcast from places where satellite camera trucks and ordinary camera crews can't go.

From amid the rubble in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, CNN reporter Gary Tuchman used a videophone to relay exclusive interviews of emergency staffers searching for survivors of the previous day's carnage.

And only hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, CNN also used a videophone to transmit an interview with the Taliban's leaders in Afghanistan as they sought to allay suspicions that Saudi exile Osama bin Laden was involved in the unprecedented terrorist attacks.

These were just two marks of a crisis brought viscerally close to home, boosted by the media's use of satellite communications technology that continues to stretch and speed reporters' reach. For the past day, much of the world has watched as reporters have been able to send back video reports from places where satellite camera trucks and ordinary camera crews couldn't go.

CNN uses a satellite videophone created specifically for such purposes by British company 7E Communications. The size of laptop computers, the machines have allowed the cable news network to transmit footage from areas unreachable by competitors using more traditional means.

In April, for example, CNN broadcast exclusive footage of the 24 crew members from the U.S. Air Force plane downed in China as they boarded a plane after their release. The station's journalists used the videophone to transmit news from the region throughout that crisis.

Weighing about 10 pounds and able to be operated by a single reporter, the videophones have considerably extended CNN's reach, the cable station said.

Reporters using the units, which are called "Talking Heads," can power them with an ordinary camera battery, or a car battery if necessary. A high-quality camcorder or video camera is used to capture the video images, which the videophone then relays via satellite to a remote station.

"They fit into a briefcase-size compartment," CNN spokeswoman Edna Johnson said. Tuchman "was able to get much closer to the scene because he had this."

This type of technology is becoming more common, even though the individual videophones and satellite connections can cost more than $10,000 apiece. ABC, Fox, Associated Press, NBC and others have purchased videophones and connections from 7E, the British company said.

"Most of the demand came immediately after Hainin," said 7E managing director Peter Beardlow, referring to the China plane incident. The units are largely used by reporting crews, but other organizations such as remote medical teams have also expressed interest in purchasing the technology, he said.