FDA takes tobacco to movies

How did the agency do it? Broadband videoconferencing.


"We wanted to find as many ways as possible to effectively communicate what the
regulations were," said Sharon Natanblut, FDA associate commissioner for strategic
initiatives. "And satellite videoconference seemed a perfect vehicle to do
that."


To reach retailers across the country, FDA teamed up with the United Artists Satellite
Theatre Network and the Public Health Service's Division of Communications Media to beam
the February conference to 25 major metropolitan areas.


Since its formation in the 1970s to provide remote training for the Center for Devices
and Radiological Health, the communications division has seen a growing demand for its
services. It now provides a wide range of closed circuit and satellite broadcast
television services throughout the Public Health Service.


"Today, we find ourselves with a host of clients," division director Robert
F. McCleary said. "If anything in the last five years has increased, it has been in
the area of videoconferencing."


The communications division technical center, where programs are produced and
originated, moved in August to its present quarters in a corner of a Public Health Service
warehouse in Gaithersburg, Md.


The facilities are not entirely state of the art. Only three studio cameras are new.
About 70 percent of the technical plant was uprooted and moved to the new site, McCleary
said. The rest of the equipment was purchased as much as two years before in anticipation
of the move, he said. Although the equipment is not brand new, the facility is
sophisticated enough to produce commercial quality broadband television that can be
transmitted via cable or satellite to audiences throughout the country.


"The vast majority of our conferences are ad hoc," McCleary said. The
technical center rents its satellite time and links rather than owning uplinks. The uplink
is usually easy, but "anytime we have a new audience, it presents us with a new
downlink problem to solve."


Talking to tobacco retailers was a challenge because they were a diverse group, spread
throughout the country with no downlink facilities of their own. To reach them, FDA turned
to the UA network, renting 25 movie theaters that had been retrofitted with satellite
receiving equipment. It was the first time FDA had turned to the four-year-old chain, and
it was UA's first federal customer.


UA, which operates more than 400 movie theaters across the country, has equipped 30 of
its theaters for satellite conferencing. Movie patrons fill the theaters on Friday night,
Saturday and Sunday, but they are largely unused through the week, said Tim Rust, director
of technical services for the network.


"We do 80 percent of our business in 20 percent of our time," Rust said.


For the FDA conference, the communications division supplied its own uplink. From its
technical center in Gaithersburg, it has a dedicated broadcast cable link from Bell
Atlantic Corp. to its main switching office in Washington. From there the signal is
carried to the Washington International Teleport in Virginia. Satellite time is bought as
needed. The downlinks at each theater can receive the highly compressed video signal at
either 3 or 5 megabits/sec, which gives a commercial quality picture, Rust said.


UA provided a return audio link from over its own network, using Vyvx Inc.'s
11,000-mile DS3 fiber-optic video network as a backbone. The network is analog, but Vyvx
is converting it to switched digital.


The communications division is planning to use the UA network for a second FDA
teleconference in late July, just before a second set of tobacco regulations take effect
in August.


An upcoming video conference for the Center for Biological Evaluation and Research
presents another challenge for the communications division. The target audience is
companies dealing in blood and blood plasma. These are spread throughout the country with
no geographical concentrations, Rust said.


"What we are doing is partnering with American Red Cross," he said.
"They have been teleconferencing for years."


Rust expects the demand for public-private partnerships for broadband videoconferencing
to continue to grow. The communications division is not being threatened by advances in
desktop video technology, he said.


"Compressed video has its niche," Rust said. "It is very good for
face-to-face." But for high-fidelity production, broadband is still the only medium,
he said.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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