Is it possible to physically network the rural radio stations in Niger and connect them to the Internet?
Niger is essentially an agricultural country. It is 85% rural. The active population accounts for about 87% of the total. The majority of the rural people are illiterate, with inadequate access to information and telecommunication infrastructure. The only way to get through to the isolated communities is through the radio, to broadcast the information they need to raise the living standards in the countryside.
The inadequacy of the facilities (logistical equipment) and the lack of a diversified infrastructure hampers radio coverage and production.
To overcome this hurdle, the Niger Government has expressed its desire to reorganise the media sector more coherently, in order to be better able to meet the demands of the new information society. The purpose of this new communication strategy is to enable the communications sector to fully play its proper role of assisting the stakeholders in Nigerian society to obtain better access to information and know-how, as the means of improving the economic and social conditions. In the countryside, the Government hopes to develop broadcasting channels that will cover both the production and broadcasting of thematic programmes on development to combat poverty and isolation. It has given pride of place to radio broadcasting.
It is against this background that the Nigerian Government sought the assistance of FAO and UNICEF to relaunch rural radio in Niger in the form of project TCP/NER/2903.
The project made provision for eight (8) activities, two of which related to building up a network. More specifically:
1. the physical networking of some twenty (20) radio stations and creating a network of rural radio stations in Niger,
2. linking the rural radio system to the Internet.
But the project was unable to establish the network. It could not link the rural radio stations to the Internet immediately. It has therefore been recommended to prepare a proposal for a project that will take account of the conclusions of the TREINEN mission.
However, considering the dynamism and the speed with which the new technological developments are spreading, is it really impossible to network all the rural radio stations in Niger and connect them to the Internet? If so, what procedure should be followed?
This paper specifically addresses the physical networking of rural radio stations and connecting them to the Internet in Niger.
I. PROJECT IMPLEMENTATION
The project document TCP/NER12903 provided for technical consultations and technical support to be provided by officials from the FAO headquarters. The consultations were planned to take place subsequently with an official of the SDRE division and one from the WAICENT (GILF) broadcasting unit.
On 1-16 December 2003, this mission took place. Its terms of reference were:
- to draw up a list of the radio stations involved in the project, their equipment and facilities, the measures taken to connect them to the Internet, the know-how of the staff responsible for retrieving information from the Internet;
-to propose a plan and a procedure for linking rural radio stations together through the Internet by setting up an Intranet network managed by a joint team to be trained in using and searching for relevant information on the Internet.
A. THE MISSION I FINDINGS (1 December-16 December 2004)
On the basis of his field visit, the official concluded that it was not immediately possible to link all the rural radio stations involved in the project, for the following reasons:
- the public and private radio stations had different missions (commercial, associations or communities);
- telephone lines (non-existent, or poor quality lines);
- the lack of computer equipment;
- impossibility of finding local IT servicing facilities (in the rural environment);
- the lack of IT training (basic, maintenance, repairs);
- inadequate infrastructure for community radio;
- the problem of connecting to the Internet in Niger (high cost, low speed, lack of digital exchanges);
- the financial plight of the radio stations (cannot afford to pay for equipment from their own resouces);
- limited electricity supply for community radio.
Considering the situation in the field, the official considered it important to move ahead in stages and suggested that the following proposals be examined:
- a physical network of the radio stations involved in the project should be created before they are linked via the Internet. This would make it possible for the radio stations to keep in contact with one another after receiving whatever training is available under the project, to encourage them to exchange and/or co-produce broadcasts on development themes.
- the implementation of a structure to coordinate this network should be encouraged, given the different legal status of each of the radio stations.
- a partnership framework between UNICEF, FAO and ACMAD should be put in place to define ways in which the RURANET site could be used and built up.
- the personnel of the radio stations should be trained to use the equipment and retrieve and process information depending on the local environment.
However, a second mission on 25 June-16 July in the same framework found that there had been a marked improvement in the country's technological infrastructure stock.
The purpose of the mission was to take stock of progress with all the project activities, to draw up a feasibility study for implementing the physical network of the radio stations involved in the project, and to make proposals for them to be connected to the Internet.
B. THE MISSION II FINDINGS (25 June-16 July 2004)
The field visit and the results of the interviews showed that it is possible to create a physical network of all the rural radio stations involved in the project. The argument about the lack of legal status and specifications is no obstacle to networking for the following reasons:
* all the private radio stations visited have at least one computer. Some of them also have Internet access;
* the SAT3 project (the project of the WADB) is now ready to take off, using fibre optics to link the Cotonou-Niamey-Ouagadougou section, and is only waiting for disbursement of the funding. The project is now at the stage of the invitation to tender at Niamey for the excavation work and fibre cable laying.
* the Niamey-Konni-Zinder link is now in place.
* the liberalisation of telecommunications will take place in 2005.
However, financial and organisational constraints, as well as the inadequate infrastructure, must be taken into account if the objective is to be obtained.
Given these constraints and considering the mission's findings, the legal status and the specifications are the points on which the radio officials are seeking clarification.
The legal status and the specifications are essential elements for ensuring that the exchange of information between the radio stations is shared most appropriately. They help to ensure that the sharing of responsibilities of each type of radio station is organised effectively. They can therefore act as an element that will bring all the pieces together around the main project, but they do not prevent the networking of the radio stations or their connection to the Internet. All that is needed is to clarify the definitions of the types of radio stations that already exist, and stop viewing radio as a mere tool and see it as a concept, and then define each concept. Working on the basis of these new concepts it could be quite easy to decide the legal status and the specifications of each type of radio station, and then try to harmonise them properly. For this latter aspect, a round table could be convened. The donors, the development stakeholders and the officials of the rural radio stations would be invited to this round table. In this way, the networking proposals could be easily implemented.
II. PROCEDURE, STAGES AND METHODOLOGY
The main purpose being pursued is to propose a horizontal information transmission system. A number of questions arise in this regard. How is the radio system to be linked into the Internet? What are the facilities and procedures? Is it really the best way of channelling information? What are the next steps?
A. PROPOSED ACTIVITIES
Here are some of the activities to be implemented step by step:
- creation of a telephone or wireless radio network between villages;
- networking the radio stations through a mailing or CD-ROM software system, using the telephone or the satellite service;
- opening up access to the whole of the Internet;
- building the relay nodes linking the seven regions in the country to the capital;
- starting by linking the private rural radio stations (1);
- then extending the network to the community radio stations (2).
The idea is to link all the inaccessible or isolated villages to the telephone or to the satellite network from a village already linked, and used as a pilot village. A technical field survey with figures, will have to be conducted.
To ensure the effectiveness of the network and the success of the whole operation, it might be more effective to begin with a zoning system, and divide the country up into zones composed of regions. In each zone, one region could be chosen as the place for locating a VSAT antenna. In each region, a survey of the rural radio station sites would make it possible to decide on the one to be designated as the relay station. It would be chosen in view of its potential, that is to say, its infrastructure level, its efficiency, its position and its reproduction quality.
The zoning could be done as follows:
Zone 1 : Agadez - Diffa -Zinder
Zone 2 : Maradi - Tahoua - Agadez
Zone 3: Tillabery - Niamey - Dosso
A system of four VSAT antennae can then be installed. Niamey could be the central node which would receive the data and then distribute them. The choice of the relay nodes would depend on the potential for accessing the Internet in the region. The choice of the regional station would depend upon its position and its capacity to cover a wide range. The same criteria will be applied to the rural radio stations and the post and telecommunications offices. After an experimental phase with this network it could be extended at a sub-regional and then worldwide level. For example, Diffa could serve as a relay station with Chad. Maradi, Zinder and Tahoua would open up towards Nigeria. Dosso would serve as a link with Benin and Nigeria. Tillabery would be the link with Burkina Faso and Mali (Cf. Plan 1).
The ultimate aim is to develop a horizontal information system between the small farmers and the information producers, and between the small farmers themselves. A multi-purpose intermediary could translate the information into the village language for the community radio stations. The idea would be to train someone to translate into the language or the dialect of the village who is also competent in communication techniques, computer use and electronics. But who will pay for this training, and who will pay this person's salary? In order to guarantee that the system remains self-sustaining, a contract between the intermediary, the small farmers, the extension workers, and central government, is something that could be examined.
Plan: Proposal for the local level link and its operation
A. Location of nodes
B. For the horizontal transmission of information
The effectiveness of a system for transmitting information to the rural radio stations will depend on its capacity for immediate two-way exchanges. We are talking about a horizontal information system. Single-side band (SSB) makes it possible to broadcast hot information for the benefit of isolated villages. The networking and connection to the Internet can do this.
With the current potential, it is possible to achieve this. Using a direct satellite link and solar panels, and exploiting progress being made with digitalisation and the laying of fibre optic cables, all the private rural radio and community stations can be connected to Niger. Special Internet links will soon be accessible in the interior of the country. This will step up surfing speed.