Low-power community radio: a technology for localization

For every criticism, it is good to propose an alternative, if one is available. My earlier post was critical of the Internet for its built-in bias for globalization, which in effect forces the poor to subsidize the rich. I’m not saying we should not use the Internet, but it is important to be aware of what it is forcing us to do. Awareness is the first step towards change and reform.

There is a technology that is almost the opposite of the Internet in many ways. This is low-power community radio. This technology excels where the Internet stumbles. Although it is much older than the Internet, its full development has been stunted by highly biased government regulations that have kept broadcasting a virtual monopoly of the rich.

The following piece is on low-power community radio is Chapter 25 in my book Towards a Political Economy of Information (2004). IT is information technology and AT, appropriate technology.

25. IT or AT?

This is a comparison of two technologies for information exchange – the global Internet and low-power community radio. It is based on the following considerations: user one-time entry cost; recurring user costs; network server one-time entry costs; recurring network server costs; equipment life; impact on jobs; local culture; production of equipment; source of information; potential reach; best use; interactivity; advertising; information goods marketing; sensory demands; health issues; accessibility; gate keepers; default paradigms; new technologies; government attitude; development agencies attitude; NGO attitude; benefits to rich countries; and proposed alternate approaches. The costs are based on Philippine prices, which should more or less reflect typical developing country figures.

In a way, the two contrasting approaches may be described by the common keywords that describe them: information technology (the Internet) or appropriate technology (low-power radio)?

User one-time entry cost

The Internet: Zero for telecenter users. However, telecenter users will find themselves at a huge disadvantage vis-à-vis other Internet users due to the limitations of computing without one’s own home or office PC. For mainstream Internet involvement, one would need at the minimum a subscription to an ISP, with its corresponding fees, as well as the cost of a computer, modem and telephone line. With used equipment, one can probably get set up with around $200.

Low-power radio: Zero for 80-90% of the population who already have a radio set. For the small minority of the poor don’t have one yet, the typical cost of a small AM/FM set is US$10-20 which is probably affordable to all but the poorest of the poor.

Recurring user costs

The Internet: Whether using a telecenter or one’s own Internet subscription, the minimum recurring user cost will probably range at around one US dollar for every one to three hours. The numbers are still going down, though gradually. Currently, Philippine prices probably reflect a fight for market share more than for return on investment. A recurring cost that is often taken for granted is the cost of maintenance and repair, which can reach, annually, 5-10% of the equipment cost. In many areas, lack of spare parts can delay repair for months while unskilled or dishonest repairmen can make the problem worse. At times, the cost of repair can approach the cost of new equipment. Some laptops are so difficult to repair that they are in effect throw-away equipment, discarded once they break down.

Low-power radio: A radio owner’s recurring cost, assuming a rural setting unreached by electricity grid, is simply the cost of a set of batteries (US$1-2) every few months. The cost is negligible where grid electricity is available. This recurring cost is truly affordable to most of the rural poor, many of whom are spending this amount today for their transistor radio.

Network server one-time entry costs

The Internet: To set up a network server involves much higher costs than a simple user. A small server on the Internet would initially cost around US$1,000-3,000 for the CPU, modem, phone line and the initial ISP subscription.

Low-power radio: A basic FM micro-power radio station would cost around US$2,000-5,000. One can probably say that a micro-power station would cost about as much as a high-end Internet server. An organization or institution which can afford computers should be able to afford a micro-power radio station. The big question mark is the licensing cost, a politically-imposed cost which does not exist for Internet servers.

Recurring network costs

The Internet: Recurring network server costs would include training costs, staff salaries, and connectivity costs (i.e., the cost of dial up and dedicated lines). Training and staff costs tend to be high, because of the unusually rapid changes in the technology and the high turnover of technical people. Connectivity may cost around $100-1000/mo. Since servers normally have to run twenty-four hours a day, an annual maintenance cost of 5-10% of the equipment cost must definitely be figured in.

Low-power radio: Because the technology is mature and standard, training and staff costs tend to be lower. There are minimal costs for electricity and supplies, and no connectivity costs, although a radio station might want an Internet connection for access to more information.

Equipment life

The Internet: The life of Internet equipment is relatively short due to unusually rapid changes not on ly in the technology but in the standards themselves. This, in effect, results in very high depreciation costs.

Low-power radio: Equipment life tends to be relatively long due to mature analog technology and stable standards. The useful life of analog audio and radio equipment can easily reach three to five times that of Internet equipment.

Cost: conclusion

The Internet: Considering the generally high cost for user and network server equipment, especially if maintenance and replacement costs are factored in, the Internet will probably remain mostly a tool for the elite (i.e., high- and some medium-income sectors) for quite sometime.

Low-power radio: This technology is definitely affordable to low-income sectors (those earning US$5/day or lower).

Impact on jobs

The Internet: Computers enforce the automation paradigm, which displaces labor with machines. New ICT-based jobs may be created, which may tend to pay higher especially in foreign firms, encouraging a shift to jobs in the ICT sector. However, these jobs are also subject to the automation paradigm and thus may also be replaced later by machines. Furthermore, those who lose their jobs to machines may be the older and unskilled workers, who are often poor candidates for retraining.

Low-power radio: Radio does not have the built-in automation paradigm of the computer, and thus poses little threat against existing jobs.

Local culture

The Internet: The Internet requires read/write literacy. Its full benefit is available only to those who are familiar with English. Knowledge of English is essential when one goes into programming the technology.

Low-power radio: Community radio stations will naturally adopt the local language, given their local reach. Radio is also very compatible with pre-literate cultures that rely on oral traditions.

Production of equipment

The Internet: Internet hardware, software and connectivity are mostly imported. Very few companies are able to make the integrated circuits that comprise the basic parts of most Internet equipment.

Low-power radio: Hardware for low-power radio stations are simpler and easier to produce locally. Local, small-scale assembly of equipment is entirely possible.

Source of information

The Internet: Bulk of the material on the Internet is foreign material. Due to the sheer volume of information available, there is always something interesting to be found. But it is less useful for getting specific local information.

Low-power radio: Due to its limited reach, low-power radio stations have little choice but to deal mostly with local material.

Potential reach

The Internet: The Internet’s global reach may cover up to several hundred million Internet users worldwide. But this potential reach is limited by the connection speed, by Internet gatekeepers, and by the dominant Internet language of English.

Low-power radio: FM micro-power stations can usually be received by radio sets within the line of sight. This can be very localized, in the case of valleys surrounded by hills or mountains. The area of coverage can be wider there the topography is more level, or where the radio station is on a hill overlooking a wider area.

Best use

The Internet: The best Internet applications are electronic mail, mailing lists, information searching, and international or national communications. Its biggest plus is flexibility, which makes it possible to mimic various media, paving the way for media convergence on a single global infrastructure.

Low-power radio: Community radios are most suited to local information dissemination, for building local public opinion, and for strengthening local community. In remote areas where it is the only contact of isolated families to the outside world, a community radio that can receive phone calls from the outside (say, from overseas contract workers) has also been used to announce urgent messages to individuals/families.

Interactivity

The Internet: Facilities for feedback, exchange and dialog are built in. However, it can also be used as a one-way medium if little importance is attached to two-way interaction. Internet response times are reckoned in milliseconds to minutes.

Low-power radio: A radio transmitting station is a one-way medium. But radio programs can and do combine technologies (such as incoming phone lines, beepers, text messaging, discussion panels, roving reporters with two-way radios, etc.) to provide feedback, exchange and dialog. Response times are reckoned in seconds to days (for mailed-in feedback).

Advertising

The Internet: Like television, the Internet is a very good medium for advertising. Besides full-color, full-motion video, the promise of immediate response through credit card purchases makes the Internet a much more powerful advertising medium than even television.

Low-power radio: Radio is only a passable medium for advertising, because it does not have the multi-sensory attractions that television and the Internet can provide.

Information goods marketing

The Internet: The Internet is the perfect medium for marketing information goods, which can be directly downloaded from the Internet and immediately paid for online with a credit card.

Low-power radio: Radio is a poor medium for marketing information goods, because it is not possible to selectively download information material from the radio; nor can the technology be used as a payment mechanism.

Sensory demands

The Internet: Multi-media gives audio-visual and even full motion capability. For high end systems, 3-D is now possible; the future promises virtual reality. The Internet requires concentration and full attention of the user. The full sensory feed that the Internet provides may encourage passive reception and discourage highly symbolic thought and the use of one’s imagination. The Internet is inaccessible to the deaf or the blind, although some special but expensive equipment may be able to help the blind.

Low-power radio: Being an audio-only medium may be a limitation. But it can also be an advantage. Radio may be enjoyed while at work. The listener may engage in other activities while listening. Because it has no visual input, radio can in fact encourage the use of one’s imagination. The technology is accessible to the blind, though not to the deaf.

Health issues

The Internet: Health concerns include radiation effects from high-frequency, very-high frequency, and near-microwave emissions; the impact of video monitors on eyesight; and Internet addiction. A computer user stares at a radiation source (the screen) barely a foot or two away, and for many hours on stretch. As more and more, including high school and even elementary students, do this on a daily basis, we can expect eyesight problems to become widespread.

Low-power radio: Radiation from broadcast transmitters is also a source of concern, but the risks are less for micro-power stations.

Accessibility

The Internet: The communication channels and servers of cyberspace are mostly private space. Many of those initially set up by governments are increasingly being privatized. This means that any claim of a right to access to the medium can be negated by counterclaims of the private owners of the medium.

Low-power radio: The radio spectrum is a public space. Thus, the public has an inherent right to access the medium. And an inherent right to use it. Today, however, this right is restricted by government through exclusionary licensing requirements. Such requirements are often justified with two arguments: 1) the radio spectrum is limited, so its use must be regulated; and 2) national security requires strict regulation of radio transmitter lest they be used for anti-government activity. Both are false arguments. Even in the largest towns, small cities and most of the larger cities, only a few AM or FM stations are active; many frequency slots are unused and therefore available. In many towns, not even a single station is operating. Like radio, the Internet can also be used for anti-government activity. Yet, most governments impose no licensing requirements on Internet servers. They can always invoke national security anyway, should a server start to engage in anti-government propaganda. There is no reason why the same liberal policy cannot be adopted for community radio stations.

Gate keepers

The Internet: The Internet is not as democratic as it is often hyped to be. Internet gate keepers exercise control over the medium, though such control may often be invisible and unintrusive but it can be as absolute as absolute can be. Gate keepers include standards-setting bodies, IP address authorities, domain name owners, communication channel and server owners, search engines, portals, mailbox providers, mailing list owners and moderators, and Internet service providers. Increasingly, these gate keepers are private entities and firms who are not accountable to the public for their policies and actions.

Low-power radio: Radio has its own gate keepers, such as radio station owners, managers and announcers. But the biggest gate keeper of all is the government, through highly restrictive licensing requirements.

New technologies

The Internet: The next major advance will probably be virtual reality – 3-D, tactile suits and other reality-enhancing developments. This development will probably worsen the negative elements we have identified about the Internet.

Low-power radio: A technology called spread spectrum, which allows many stations to share a segment of the radio spectrum with minimal interference. This technology is the answer to the so-called scarcity of the radio spectrum.

Default paradigms

The Internet: The Internet is not a neutral technology. It contains built-in values and default paradigms. These include: global competition, automation and the replacement of workers with machines, subsidy for global players, US/Europe-centric, Anglo-Saxon culture, and high-tech advocacy.

Low-power radio: The built-in values of community radio include local orientation, oral tradition, community-centeredness, local culture, and intermediate technology advocacy.

Government attitude

The Internet: Governments tend to embrace the technology, with some exceptions). No duties are imposed; the legal requirements are minimal; no license is usually required to set up an Internet server. Following the lead of US and Europe, governments often adopt the policy of investing heavily in the new technology.

Low-power radio: Governments are almost one in restricting, taxing, heavily regulating, controlling and monitoring the technology. A license is invariably required to operate a station. The legal requirements are difficult and often exclusionary.

Development agencies attitude

The Internet: Funding agencies actively encourage, support, and fund ICT projects. In fact, they may even pressure NGOs to adopt ICTs (as when they insist on emailed attachments for reports). They are working hard to extend the reach of the Internet and to protect it from authoritarianism.

Low-power radio: With very few exceptions, radio broadcast projects see to get low priority. There is mostly silence on radio spectrum democracy, radio access rights, and universal access to broadcast equipment.

NGO attitude

The Internet: NGOs are eager to explore the technology. Many have embraced it and have invested heavily in equipment. An increasing number are getting their own domain name and setting up their own websites. While the advantages are real for NGOs heavily involved in international work, they are not so obvious for local NGOs.

Low-power radio: There are very few NGO advocates of community radio. They are usually discouraged by the very restrictive government licensing requirements and the little support they could get from development agencies.

Benefits to rich countries

The Internet: As the Internet expands, rich countries will enjoy a huge expansion of their markets for hardware, software connectivity, consultancy and other ICT services. By using the Internet to tap cheap IT labor and expertise in poor countries, the rich countries will be able to minimize immigration and strengthen their protectionist policies in restricting the movement of labor. The rapid spread of credit cards and e-commerce will also expand the markets for their other non-IT goods. Because they are already information economies, rich countries are masters of ICT and are in the best position to take advantage of the new technologies.

Low-power radio: The AM/FM sets needed by the remaining 10-20% of poor without one, to ensure 100% coverage, can be served by local production. The same can be done with micro- power broadcast stations. By enhancing community interaction, low-power stations can encourage the development of the local economy, and reduce outmigration. By encouraging local commerce, local stations are less helpful in expanding the markets of rich countries. Community radio merges better with the needs of agricultural and industrializing economies.

Proposed alternate approaches

The Internet: The government must reduce the overemphasis on Internet infrastructure at the expense of other equally important infrastructure. No special tax breaks or duty exemptions should be granted to Internet infrastructure. The government should mandate the use of free/open software in the public sector. Compulsory licensing should be applied on important patented and copyrighted material. Public access stations should be encouraged, and community/public control and ownership over Internet infrastructure should be maintained. Later, the use of the Internet in community radio stations should be explored. Check the viability of a stand-alone VCD player cum CDROM browser (<$40) for low-cost information dissemination.

Low-power radio: The government should give greater priority to local approaches like community radio. The restrictive legal requirements for setting up low-power radio stations should be removed. Such stations should instead enjoy tax breaks and duty exemptions. The local production of AM/FM sets and micro-power broadcast stations should be encouraged. Useful program materials like the Discovery series should be subject to compulsory licensing in a community television pilot project. A wider segment of the broadcast radio spectrum should be allotted for micro-power stations. Ceilings should be established on transmitting power, and these ceilings should be gradually reduced over the years, to allow more stations to go on the air. The expansion of community radio to include some offline facilities for email and lists as well as other intermediate technologies for information networking should also be explored.

A challenge to governments

For a small fraction of the cost of building an Internet infrastructure, a string of community-run low-power radio stations in the countryside can provide the poorest sections of society with an accessible medium for information access that closely matches their information needs.

It is a solution so appropriate that one wonders why it is not widely used.

The problem is an antiquated, highly centralized legal framework which burdens potential radio stations with extremely restrictive requirements that keep access to the radio spectrum in very few hands.

If governments only allowed ordinary people to set up a low-power radio station as freely as they can an Internet server, then we can quickly see which technology truly meets the people’s information needs.

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