Leveraging Internet with Radio

February 25, 2009

Within ICT4D practice, there seems to be little debate, at least when you look at implementation funding, that bringing Internet to rural areas in places like Africa that had been previously “cut off” is good idea and potentially transformative.   Until recently more recently, “bringing the Internet” has meant usually plunking down a VSAT, setting up a small computer lab and hoping someday that one day it will become sustainable.

Despite being by and large, unsustainable, such projects are still difficult and are important from a symbolic standpoint and do serve as a temporary bridge in some ways for the digital divide.  The problem that is even harder to address is accessibility.  How many people actually get to access the Internet on the computers and when then they do are they using it in a way that’s socially beneficial?

Eventually low cost smart phones that are able to access the Internet in an acceptable way (think <$100 Chinese iPhone), will represent a paradigm shift in the way Africans connect to the Internet.   Until then, a community radio is probably the best way to make the information on the Internet accessible to rural communities.

The following is a story about a project in I worked on during my time at Geekcorps Mali which helps illustrate this point.

A Weekly Connection to the Outside World

Aboubacrine Touré admits to having become somewhat of a local celebrity in Bourem Inaly, a remote community about 30 kilometers west of Tombouctou on the Niger river in northern Mali. While he is the director of the local community radio station, Radio Beeray (Respect), he is best known throughout the region as the host of Journal of Journals, a weekly radio news program that airs every Sunday night.

Using an IESC Geekcorps Desert PC equipped with an R-BGAN Satellite Modem, Aboubacrine connects to the Internet in search of local and regional news that would be of interest to his listening audience. Over the span of the week, he carefully summarizes the news which he presents in the local language Songhai during his hour-long broadcast.

Radio Beeray’s ability to connect to the Internet is a direct result of USAID Mali’s Communication for Development objective whose aim is “to make it easier for Malians to get access to information that will enable them to improve the quality of their lives.” In partnership with USAID Mali, IESC Geekcorps set out to develop an affordable solution for providing Internet access to its partner radio stations at sites across the remote desert region of northern Mali. Based on VIA components, Geekcorps designed the Desert PC to withstand the extreme heat and dust of a harsh desert environment. Additionally, its power draw is less then a 60W light bulb, which makes the PC ideal for an environment where solar is the primary source of energy. An R-GBAN system along with bandwidth limiting software can be paired with the Desert PC to provide an affordable medium for a community to connect to the outside world.

Since Aboubacrine started the program in early 2006, its reception from the local community has been very positive. He knows of many people who even bought radios for the first time so their families could tune into his program and be connected to the outside world through the news.

When a technical difficulty caused the radio station’s Internet connection to be down temporarily, he was amazed by the number of people who wrote in to complain.

Initially, Journal of Journals was met with a lot of skepticism. Since most people in his remote village had never heard of the Internet, he was often accused of, “making the news up!” Aboubacrine explains. This was especially the case earlier this year when Radio Beeray broke the news that Tuareg rebels had attacked the northern outpost of Kidal. Most people simply did not believe that such an attack was possible and were particularly doubtful since no one from neighboring Timbuktu could corroborate the report. The next day when the Malian national press picked up the story, Radio Beeray skeptics became dedicated listeners.

While he primarily uses the Internet to email and get current news (especially stories relating to tensions in the north and the Ivory Coast civil war), Aboubacrine often has requests to look up things like telephone country codes or weather forecasts. Additionally, the encyclopedia that came installed with the computer has been very popular with local students. Mr. Touré, who also works as a teacher at the local school, admits that access to the Internet has even had a positive effect on his lesson planning. While it will likely be years before the average Malian has access to the web, Radio Beeray shows the Internet remains a powerful tool for helping to bridge the information gap.

There are some key take aways from this project that are important to share.   From a technical standpoint, it was a tremendous success.  Using a lot of clever engineering, we were able to limit the radio’s bandwidth consumption to about 200K/day or $6 (1MB) a week, which the Radio Director was able to use to connect his community to the outside world – certainly a lot of “bang-for-the-byte”.  Despite getting the total Internet cost down to about $30-40 a month (vs. $300+ for VSAT), an amount the Radio could probably sustain, Radio Beeray currently has no Internet.   The reason, which is almost always the case, once funding ends payments stop to the satellite provider.    We worked so hard to engineer a solution that was affordable that we overlooked the fact that once Geekcorps was gone they would have no way of paying.    This is too often the case and in many cases it is unavoidable.

The good news is that increasingly you are able to pay for data via a prepaid scratch card, the same you use to fill up your cell.    2G/3G in Africa is coming and when it gets to Tomboctou, Radio Beeray will be able to stay online.

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I'm a technologist/geek living in Nairobi, Kenya. I believe open code and data can make the world a better place. Follow me on Twitter;

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