Staff Reporter

Pacific Bell wants to give messenger services a high-tech run for their money.

The phone company recently introduced a system that represents what could be a sea change in how the entertainment industry sends tapes around town as well as the nation. Using Pac Bell's real-time video transfer system, studios can send previously incompatible video formats from point A to point B.

So instead of throwing film dailies on a plane or the finished tape to an express messenger, producers can send videotapes over Pac Bell's network directly to, for example, a post-production house or a studio executive's office. The video comes across in real time, looking identical to a tape played on a VCR.

The video access gateway acts as a translator. There are several different types of hardware used to transmit digital film or video data, and people with differing systems can't send or receive the data without the gateway.

In addition, Pac Bell's system allows everyone involved to videoconference over the same network and discuss what they're seeing.

"The Hollywood community historically has used messengers for any sort of collaborative process," said Alayne Finkle, director of product management for video access at Pacific Bell. "Now you can send the video from desktops to shooting locations to special-effects houses and even the ad campaign place without expensive delays. The images are transferred as fast as I can talk, that's how smooth it is."

The beta-testing phase of the new system just started in June, and it's scheduled to be fully rolled out in September. So far, eight customers are lined up for the test phase. Although the product is too new for extensive feedback, initial reactions have been cautiously positive.

"We've used a real-time video transfer before with all our customers, but we had to set up all the switches (over various telephone networks) ourselves in advance," said Steven Panama, executive vice president of Kaleidoscope Films, a trailer production company in Hollywood. "This new gateway, in theory, should solve the headaches involved."

Added Alan Hart, executive vice president of engineering for Modern Videofilm, a Burbank post-production house: "I lived through the days of incompatibility in trying to send a tape from one company to the other over the lines, and this system should eliminate the hassle we had to go through. Most practical would be to get this service into private homes so you could get the tape easily to the producers, directors and (composers)."

Some analysts are voicing skepticism over the system, noting that similar, if more primitive, video-transmission systems, like Sprint's "Drums" service, have never taken off.

"I think Federal Express is gong to be safe," said David Goodtree, director of telecommunications strategies at Forrester Research Inc. "On the other hand, this system is much more affordable and flexible than satellite transmission."

Indeed, Kaleidoscope Films returned to the use of electronic networks after using satellites for a while. "First, the signal cannot be pirated, which can happen via satellite," Panama said. "Second, this is broadcast quality and uncompressed."

Having an uncompressed signal is another strong selling point that Pac Bell has going for it. When compressed, digitized video contains "artifacts," static images that are actually frozen from frame to frame to reduce the amount of data sent.

"You cannot afford to have artifacts at a post-production house, since we need to see exactly what the shot looks like," Hart said. "And of course, signals don't get any better the more they are beamed around."

Pac Bell's system doesn't have to compress the signal to send it in real time, because the network capacity is like a sewer pipe compared to a garden hose, according to said Kathryn Hosler, Pac Bell's project manager for broadcast video operations in Hollywood.

With high-tech options to send video quickly around Tinseltown, will traditional messengers get edged out?

Not likely. Companies involved in the beta testing say they won't deliver everything via the network.

"There is nothing like holding a completed show in your hand and passing it off with the good expectation that nothing will happen to it during delivery," Hart said. "Things can happen in electronic transfers."

Hosler acknowledged that the Hollywood community may be slow to change its behavior. "Re-educating customers will be our biggest challenge," she said.

The nerve center for the AVS-270 Gateway system is housed at Pac Bell's broadcast operations center in Hollywood. Since 1987, the center has been a hub for transmitting the bulk of network television programming that originates in Los Angeles to affiliate stations across the country.

Pac Bell will not disclose the cost for setting up the new video transfer/gateway nerve center, a cost complicated by the fact that the phone company will be integrating existing networks into the new operation. One telecommunications analyst pegged the price of a single gateway in the "tens of thousands" range.

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