Radio 2.0 – Using Innovative Technologies in the Effort to Connect the Unconnected

By: Ben White
On: September 22, 2008
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About Ben White
I am a media professional with several years of international experience. I have worked on media projects in Europe, Central/Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I have a particular interest in the rise of internet and mobile tehnologies in emerging markets. This interest is an important part of my master's program at the University of Amsterdam.


Web 2.0 for a Global Society ?

As defined by Wikipedia, the term Web 2.0 “encapsulates the idea of the proliferation of interconnectivity and interactivity of web-delivered content.” Tim O’Reilly, often recognized as the first person to coin the term, classifies the companies and products into four levels of Web 2.0 sites:

Level 1: pure Internet based platforms and applications that make use of human-to-human interaction.

 Level 2: offline based platforms that offer augmented services when online.

 Level 3: applications operate offline but gain features online.

 Level 4: applications work as well offline as online.

 O’Reilly then goes on to explain that non-web applications like e-mail, instant messaging client and the telephone fall outside of the above hierarchy. (Wikipedia).

Although the term Web 2.0 is clearly explained by O’Reilly, I wonder if the definition is complete. Specifically, what about all of the people who are not connected to the Internet or do not have access to the platforms, applications and technologies needed to “participate?” Do these people simply miss out on the opportunity presented by Web 2.0 or can they still benefit from the same basic principals, ideas and way of thinking the term has come to represent?

“O’Reilly regards Web 2.0 as business embracing the web as a platform and using its strengths, for example global audiences.”(Wikipedia

It is clear that Web 2.0 applications and technologies benefit by their access to great numbers of users, however, we know that business cannot engage a ‘truly’ global audience when a mere 22% of the world’s population have access to the Internet. (Wikipedia)

Personally, I am most attracted to the ideas the Web 2.0 presents as a philosophy, but see a need for tools, technologies and platforms that make the philosophy accessible to a greater number of people i.e. the 88% of the population that still needs to be connected.

As a result, I prefer to use a definition that characterizes Web 2.0 more as a set of value and beliefs:

“…the philosophy of mutually maximizing collective intelligence and added value for each participant by formalized and dynamic information sharing and creation.” (Wikipedia)

From my perspective, this means looking beyond more traditional definitions that only characterize Web 2.0 as web-delivered content, and into the technologies that allow the “non connected user” to participate. This means having access to content and being able to contribute to its development regardless of a person having an Internet connection. The idea is that any person anywhere in the world can participate in the exchange of knowledge and as a result become part of a global movement to collect, find and share a combined database of information.

Case Study: The Reality of Radio in Africa

Given a lack of ICT infrastructure on the continent, radio is by far the most effective means of communication. Radio networks are spread across the continent and broadcast in thousands of local languages. “Across Africa, the radio is the primary communication medium for reaching to the largest segment of the population. The radio is a constant presence on the streets, in homes, market places and workplaces. Radio is also cross-cutting in its penetration, serving divergent populations, languages as well as gender, economic and ethnic affiliations.” (Gateway NLM)

The power if this media is especially apparent when compared to the relative small number of Internet users and mobile subscribers.

5.5% of the population have access to internet (Internet World Stats)

34% of the population have access to mobile technology (

It is clear that the situation is starting to change. The explosive growth of Internet and mobile in Africa is a development impossible not to recognize. However, given the current reality, it is fair to say that radio could still play an important role in connecting people to the digital networks. 

DAB and FM/AM compared

DAB technology works to expand the number of stations that can operate within a comparatively small amount of spectrum. This is opposed to FM and AM that use a large amount of spectrum for only a few stations. In this way, DAB works to expand the range of possibilities for data transmission.

“DAB is a digital radio broadcasting system that through the application of multiplexing and compression combines multiple audio streams onto a single broadcast frequency called a DAB ensemble.” (Wikipedia)

Benefits include improved end user features, more stations, reception quality, less pirate interference, and variable bandwidth. For me, the greatest power of Digital radio is seen in its ability to transmit/broadcast content. An example of data transfer includes the WSF Multimedia Service:

“The WSF Multimedia Service enables these groups to transmit Web-based material to targeted audiences in Africa. Text and images supplied by the group are digitally formatted and transmitted via the satellite to the computers of its target audience. The data is downloaded through a WorldSpace receiver connected to the computer by a special adapter. As much as 600 MB of data can be downloaded in a day at a rate of about 64 kilobits per second.”

Example of useful content: Digital radio relays text to remote doctors and nurses in Africa

Public health educators will use satellite technology to link remote healthcare workers in Africa to high quality sources of health information.

The new service, called the Public Health Channel, will use a combination of satellite, digital radio, and text to enable healthcare workers in even the most remote parts of Africa to have access to the information and support that most doctors and nurses in the developed world take for granted.

The channel will be piloted in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, but the coverage of the AfriStar satellites, which transmit the signals, includes the whole of the continent. Future initiatives by the non-profit organisation involved, the WorldSpace Foundation, include a similar service via its AsiaStar satellite to Asia.

The initiative has been made possible by a commercial satellite company, WorldSpace, donating 5% of its bandwidth to charitable use. Users can download audio material to a special digital radio receiver, or, with a specialized computer adaptor, use the same bandwidth stream to download text to a computer.

The information charity Satellife acts as content provider, making its combination of electronic archives and digital content available to its network of users.

The chief executive officer of the WorldSpace Foundation, Gracia Hillman, said: “Our service is cost effective, and provides a way of reaching people disadvantaged by poverty.”

The digital receivers come with a built-in dish and retail in Africa for about £156 ($250).

(This project is explained by Douglas Carnall and more information can be found on the website of WorldSpace.)

Digital Radio and the Open Platform – An innovative project

Last week I visited the IBC 2008 week in Amsterdam. I met up with Jonathan Marks, the founder of Critical Distance, and we went out looking for new technologies that offer surprising applications for the developing world.

The most interesting project was the demonstration of the first mobile broadcasting handset that Canadian researchers have based entirely on an open source platform. For more details on the project see an interview I conducted with the researchers:


For the project they have implemented the DAB standard on both the transmission and the reception side. This included the development of a full transmission chain based on DAB.

As explained by the project manager Francois Lefebre, “So it is a DAB multiplexer that you can update in real time and a DAB modulator that is done in software defined radio as DR. This means you use a piece of equipment that generically produces any kinds of modulation.”

It is interesting to mention that the project makes use of open source standards. This means that developers can leverage a large network of researchers and access a long list of applications. For example, pre-developed modulations for GSM and GPRS technologies.

I have taken the liberty to copy the press release for this posting:

CRC to Demonstrate First Mobile Broadcasting Handset Prototype Based on an Open Platform

5 September 2008

The Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting (MMB) team of the Communications Research Centre Canada (CRC) will showcase its new broadcasting handset prototype called openmokast in Amsterdam at the IBC 2008 exhibition this week.

The prototype, based on the openmoko FreeRunner manufactured by FIC Inc., is the first open handset to integrate the reception of live digital radio, video and data services with typical smart phone functions such as mobile telephony, wireless internet and GPS positioning.

A complete software stack was developed and integrated at CRC to control an attached receiver and decode various services such as DAB, DAB+, DMB, Slideshow, Visual Radio and Journaline. A physical extension was also built to seamlessly integrate a USB-based receiver and its antenna at
the back of the FreeRunner.

Three key factors made this breakthrough possible:

1)    The extreme level of openness provided by the openmoko platform

2)    The many open source software building blocks available from its growing community of developers

3)    The broadcast standards that are accessible and open.

The most important and disruptive feature of the openmokast prototype is that it allows any interested developer to access raw bit streams directly from the broadcast chip set to create innovative software applications that are limited only by his/her imagination. This is not possible with current broadcast-enabled handsets based on various standards such DAB/DMB, DVB-H or MediaFLO because their application sets are pre-determined by manufacturers or mobile operators, and can be modified only by them or authorized developers.

Other open platforms were also considered for this project but none appeared to be as advanced and open as the openmoko framework. It is also interesting to note that none of the major open platforms, including openmoko, have indicated plans to support digital broadcasting hardware in the near future.

CRC’s mission includes helping to identify and close the innovation gaps in Canada’s communications sector by engaging in industry partnerships and building technical intelligence. With this project, the CRC team hopes to catalyze broadcast application innovation for mobile handsets through a more open ecosystem, accessible tools and lower barriers to entry. In an effort to leverage global expertise, CRC invites players from the whole mobility value chain, more specifically broadcasters, application developers, users, device integrators and chip set makers,
to collaborate on this initiative and embrace new opportunities emerging from open source business models.

If you want to know more about this project you can visit the CRC website.

Relevance for unconnected populations?

 This application holds a lot of potential. To start, the price of the transmission unit can cost as little as USD 800. The cheap cost of this technology makes it an affordable option for many broadcasters. The fact that the project makes use of open source software only increases the number of people who can use it. At the same time, the open source approach means the technology can be adapted and modified in a way that best serves the specific needs of each project.

One drawback is the lack of digital radio’s available on the market and their lackluster sales in even the world’s most developed markets. Part of the problem is that they are quite expensive when compared to traditional FM/AM receivers. An FM/AM receiver can cost as little as one USD where a DAB enabled radio implanted in a cell phone can cost between 50 and 100 USD. The question for DAB technology is to know when you will have receivers available at a similar price point as seen with FM receivers.

That said, the technologies greatest impact might not come from its traditional application i.e. radio and television broadcast. One area of particular interest could be in the sending/transmission of data. As an illustrative example, Francois Lefebvre notes that you could take all of the daily web log postings in Canada and transmit them by a DAB radio using less then 1/10th the capacity of a DAB channel. This gives us an idea of the amount of content we could actually send via such a device and clearly there might be other business/content models that would make better use of what this project has to offer.

One idea proposed by Jonathan Marks, Founder of Critical Distance, looks into using the radios as nodes in a local network. For example, a number of the radios could be distributed across a region. Different broadcasters could use the technology to exchange programming with partner radio stations. The individual programs could be then be downloaded and then converted for broadcasting via well-established analog networks.

Funny enough, the idea of local communities downloading a program, reformatting it to local taste and then uploading their own contributions doesn’t sound so different from the Web 2.0 definitions and technologies we know and use today.

Interesting quote: Wikipedia

(The noun “broadcasting” itself came from an agricultural term, meaning “scattering seeds”.) 

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