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March/April 2001
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Rural Access by Radio and Internet Helps Close the Digital Divide

By Lynne Gallagher tti@his.com and Djilali Benamrane dbenamrane@yahoo.com

Convergence of the Internet and broadcasting is a critical priority in developing countries and is already happening in many areas. Strategies to bring the power of communications to rural communities marry the power and reach of radio broadcasting with the power and interactivity of the Internet. Radio delivers information to many listeners. The Internet enables the community to send back information, as well as to ask questions, request and seek information, and communicate with specialists. Radio will be the last mile that can localize, repackage, translate, and broadcast content from national and international sources. The radio broadcast system planned for Niger and the Tel@Bureau networks described here show the promise of such convergence for rural populations.

Telecenters will provide access to the Internet and to computers, telephone service, and radio broadcasting. They can broadcast or retransmit radio programming, and they can also play the radios that receive the programs. They can draw upon the content provided by the Internet to create their own local programs. Many radios can be served in the same area served by one telecenter. A network of telecenters can be linked to a central hub for connectivity to the Internet while the hub site also serves as a radio broadcasting transmitter/receiver.

Integration with radio broadcasting extends the reach and delivery of information to the broader community, multiplying the impact and effectiveness of program content and services. Convergence of Internet and radio creates powerful and cost-effective tools for social and economic development. It marries the one-way broadcast of public information with the interactive two-way, store-and-forward, or real-time, communications from the village to the world. It also provides a content delivery system over the Internet for community broadcasters to be used in local programming.

The Tel@Bureau system of networked telecenters and the Niger radio broadcasting system show how rural communications can be provided, but the real potential lies in merging and leveraging the two technologies to create a way of integrating rural areas into the communications mainstream.

A network of small telecenters that are solar powered and connected by wireless and satellite technologies to the Internet, Tel@Bureaus will serve many functions for rural communities. They provide markets for local producers, help educate children, deliver health information and services, and assist farmers with information about market prices, weather, and new techniques.

Tel@Bureaus are portable, self-contained telecenters in a box. They can be located in a small shop, business or co-op, or tourist hotel. Others will be in schools, clinics, government offices, or community centers. Usually, they will be indoors, but it is possible to set them up outdoors under a tarp or tent at a remote work site.

The box is delivered to each remote site. It opens to become a desk with a multimedia computer, printer, telephone, peripherals, and radio. The power supply and solar panels and the wireless and/or satellite equipment come with the desk to be installed outside. The system is ruggedized to withstand the rigors of remote rural regions.

All of the telecenters come complete with applications software and relevant content for all-purpose telecenter uses, such as e-mail and Web browsing. An office suite includes word processing, database, spreadsheet, and presentation. A special search engine and indexing ensure fast and accurate responses. Some can also be customized with additional site-specific equipment, applications, and content, such as curricula for distance education, imaging systems for telemedicine, transaction processing and electronic data interchange for e-commerce, or GIS for environmental monitoring.

The networks will also be designed and customized to fit the geography, terrain, distances, remoteness, climate, and population or user density. A typical network will cover 60 kilometers (37 miles) or so, but more territory can be accessed with repeaters. A basic system will consist of 30 Tel@Bureaus to start, scalable to 180 sites, within the 60-kilometer footprint. They will be connected to the central hub site with a very-small-aperture-terminal (VSAT) or microwave connection to the Internet. Different access technologies will be selected to fit the needs or the area. Similar approaches to integrating wireless local loop and VSAT technology were discussed at the ITU TELCOM Americas in Rio de Janeiro during April. Macrocells of 30 kilometers offering voice and data using GSM, TDMA, and CDMA, migrating to IMT2000 with multimedia services, were described.

At very remote sites far from a central hub or at disaster relief sites, the telecenters will have Internet and telephone access by satellite--by either VSAT or satellite phone. Those in major cities can be connected to the available fixed telephone network or an urban wireless system.

This is an integrated-systems-and-services product. The services and the content will be customized for developing countries and will provide the support for social and economic development in the various sectors.

Niger Broadcast Program of Rural Radio

The African country of Niger has initiated a seven-year program to build a network of 160 self-managed, solar-powered, rural radio broadcasting stations to provide access to information and communication for social and economic development. This is the missing link for poverty alleviation in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. The first station is in Bankilare, a village of 2,000 plus the 10,000 nomads in the 12-kilometer area who are without significant income, electricity, telephone, or clean water. Radio has been and continues to be the primary means of communication in Africa. Bankilare has great difficulty receiving national and regional radio broadcasts from ORTN, which are also not in their languages, and few can afford the radio receivers or batteries.

Rural Radio Network and Information Centers for Development (RURANET/ICD) provides a solution:

-- 30-watt broadcasting units operated by local teams of managers and translators to produce local versions

-- Program content from Africa Learning Channel and Afristar/Francophonie Channel downloaded from Worldspace's digital audio satellite

-- Receipt on Baygen wind-up or solar-powered radios distributed to listening groups in a 20-kilometer radius

This is a partnership started by the United Nations Development Program, the Dutch aid agency SNV, and the African Center of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD), which provide the equipment and assistance. The communities will cooperate with civil society, government, public and private operators, donors, and nongovernmental organizations. The program is setting up a rural radio broadcasting network covering the main parts of the country, with 20 units in each of seven regions. These networks of self managed solar rural radio units (SEMRRUs) will be operated by local teams of men and women who produce, translate, and transmit the local programming. Creating these local associations and training the members in management, broadcasting, and program content production ensure sustainability and critical local ownership.

They will also create Information Centers for Development around the radio units, promoting solar energy use for TV, telephone, multimedia PCs, water pumps, mills, and drying systems. Training will be given to local teams or associations to manage the units and produce or translate the programs in the local languages; in Bankilare these would be Tamacheq, Songhai, Peulh, and Arabic.

The three-phase program began in the summer of 1999 and is now setting up one unit in each of the seven rural regions outside the capital, Niamey. Three are in operation, and four are well advanced. The next phase for consolidation during 2001-2002 will expand to 20 broadcasting units in each region, including 10 in Niamey, for a total of 150 stations. The next five years of 2003-2007 will focus on expanding the programming, partners, applications, and information and communications technology equipment such as computers, TV, and telephones. Various solar technologies supporting economic development, such as mills or pumps, will also expand the range of income-generating activities in both the communications and production sectors.

The minimal cost of each unit is less than $20,000. This includes the broadcasting console, antenna, solar panels, and mast for about $10,000, almost equally divided between the broadcasting and the solar systems provided by their partner Wantok Enterprises Ltd. Complementary equipment for multimedia--including a solar PC, a digital camera, and radio receivers--costs about $3,500. The wind-up Free Play radios and solar FM receivers to be distributed to listening groups in a 20-kilometer range cost $3,000 for 100 radios. Construction of an adapted building with woodless technology runs $2,000.

Funding for the first unit in Bankilare is supported by two projects: one on Poverty Reduction and the other on the Environment, which committed $10,000 for radio receivers ($3,000), small ICT equipment ($2,000), and $5,000 for training. Other funds come from donors, from the communities, and from the sale of the FreePlay Baygen radios donated by ACMAD. SNV provided a rented room until the association's building became ready in April 2000.

The participator SMSRR Association is composed of:

-- An Executive Committee of three members: a president, a secretary, and a treasurer

-- A Management board made up of seven members

-- A Committee of Control of seven members in charge of the quality of the diffused programs

-- Of those 17 leading members, 6 are women

-- A group of seven volunteer translators, of whom three are women, to animate the programs in the Songhai, Tamachek, and Peulh languages

The government assigns the frequency and provides the permits to transmit. The association requested the statute, rules of procedure, and standards for equipment and allowed emissions from the regulator Open Computing Network, which in turn files copies with the Ministries of Interior and Communications before assigning the frequency for the provisional three-month test period and then for five years renewable.


The integration of telecenters and rural radio broadcasting brings a cost-effective, full-service, two-way communications system to communities. One model would combine the radio system, such as Niger is building with the network of Tel@Bureaus and providing Internet access, e-mail messaging, interactive multimedia computers, faxes, and phones. The shared infrastructure of solar power and the combination of wireless data/voice transmission and radio broadcasting transmitters from the same masts would multiply the services while spreading the costs. Interactive distance education, telemedicine, e-commerce, and governance in a civil society are possible with the two-way communication using the key resources of radio frequencies and solar and/or wind energy systems for a collocated full-service information-and-communication-technology center. The cost would come to less than the combined cost of the Tel@ Bureau and SEMRRUs of $40,000, or roughly $20,000 each. The benefits would be well more than doubled; the sum would be greater than the parts. Both technologies deliver key essential services that when combined, produce the optimal delivery system for social and economic development.

These parallel strategies of getting communications to rural areas can converge to get efficiencies of scale and scope in costs. Equally important is bringing all of the tools--computers, telephones, radio, and TV--together to create the greatest impact of communications technologies. Solar power and wireless access mean these systems can go anyplace, anytime. It can start now.

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