Construction began this month on the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), which promises to bring low-cost, high-speed Internet access to eight countries. Funded by telecommunications operators and development institutions, the project is scheduled for completion in late 2009 and expected to create and enhance connectivity for millions of people. Internet penetration rates are in the single digits in most of Africa, and countries on the east coast rely on slow and expensive satellite connections.
The spread of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is an indicator of social and economic development. The Internet can inform farmers of market prices and weather forecasts, provide opportunities for distance learning and vocational training, and facilitate knowledge exchange among health practitioners, policy makers, and advocacy groups. ICT is also cited as a means for poorer countries to leapfrog traditional stages of development.
EASSy holds promise for East Africa, including six of the world's least developed countries. It is one of three fiber-optic cable projects currently underway in the region.
But bridging the digital divide isn't automatic for all communities. State monopolies dominate cables in some parts of Africa, making monthly Internet prices unaffordable for the majority of the population. EASSy's funding scheme is designed to avoid this, but electricity is scarce in rural areas, and technical and functional literacy rates are low. Little of the Internet's content is available in local languages or of relevance to local communities.
By contrast, radio may be generating more change in the developing world than is commonly thought. Radios are affordable almost anywhere, and require little technical know-how and no electricity. Even when batteries are inaccessible, wind-up and solar-powered receivers are available.
A 2002 census conducted by InterMedia showed that radio was the main source of information for almost half of Ugandan households surveyed (with slightly more people reporting word of mouth as their main source). This compares to 1 percent who reported either print media or television as a primary source of information.
Radio in Africa has only become more prominent since then. Over the last two decades, as governments have loosened control over broadcasting, stations have gone on the air all over the continent. This radio revolution has been supported by nongovernmental, religious, and commercial organizations, along with community broadcasters.
According to a report published jointly last month by Balancing Act and InterMedia, 150 radio stations now exist in Uganda alone, the majority of which broadcast in the country's 38 different languages. Ebimeeza, or open air discussions broadcast live on the radio, have become especially popular in the country, and somewhat controversial. In 2002, the Ugandan government attempted to ban ebimeeza, due to criticism it was fielding from them. The BBC reports that although civil society and public resistance kept ebimeeza on the air, the government's efforts had a damping effect on the political tone of programming.
The Panos Institute has been involved in radio initiatives in East Africa for more than 20 years to help strengthen the role of rural community members in development. With basic equipment and training provided by Panos, a group of women in the Zambian farming district of Mazabuka recorded a program on their trouble accessing clean water. After the program aired on community and national radio stations, Mazabuka's town clerk promised to address the issue by drilling new boreholes.
In 2003, Zambia's health minister responded to a similar project in the town of Chipata. After local women recorded an appeal for greater access to HIV/AIDS treatment, the minister designated their local hospital a regional antiretroviral drug distributor.
People outside the developing world are also impacted by radio. In the United States, where slightly less than half of the adult population has high-speed Internet access in their homes, low-power radio is becoming a tool for community engagement.
In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission created the low-power FM radio service, which opened the airways to noncommercial educational broadcasting. In South Bend, Indiana, low-power FM station WSBL-LP is the only Spanish-language broadcaster in town. According to Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), the station airs English-language vocabulary lessons and runs public service announcements for HIV screenings and early childhood vaccinations. WSBL-LP's director, Eliud Villanueva, told CJR that the statistics at local clinics rose significantly in the station's first year on the air. The station is run with equipment that was bought on eBay, and neither of the two staff had previous experience in radio.
Last year, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved the Local Community Radio Act, which, if passed, will ease restrictive licensing regulations and allow for more educational, religious, and other community organizations to create their own low-power stations.
The Internet is still an important new factor for development in poor and rural communities. In many cases, it connects local radio broadcasters to NGOs and other sources of information. And as connectivity goes up, millions of dollars flood into ICT training programs for people in developing countries, and educational video and audio programs are increasingly produced for online use. But despite the globalization of high-tech innovations, old-fashioned radio is still making waves.
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