U.S. International Broadcasting at the Speed of Life

ISNA-satellite-dishes

Satellite dishes number in the thousands on rooftops in Iran. (Iranian Student’s News Agency)

Sitting in on a whiz-bang presentation at the USC/Public Diplomacy Council’s forum this week by BBG’s dynamic and talented CIO and CTO, André Mendes, I was reminded of important progress we’ve made in our transmission and technical infrastructure.  We now have the most reliable transmission network – ever – providing the best array of signals on all platforms to our audiences worldwide. This means transmission downtimes that are fractional – often less than one percent. This also means we’ve tapped new methods for reaching our audiences in key regions.

I’m thinking in particular of the satellite “radio with slate” concept that is now reaching China, Tibet and Iran unobstructed.  We know there is growing use in China of these small satellite dishes, something in the range of 11 percent, according to the most recently available data – and by now, that number would be higher.  In Iran, the proliferation of small satellite dishes far exceeds that of China. This is a direct consequence of a precipitous drop in the cost of these satellite set-ups and their ready availability in  normal commercial venues and the black market. In these places that continue to inhibit news of issues deemed uncomfortable to authorities, access to the balanced news of our broadcasters is a real lifeline.

Similarly, our successful Internet Anti-Censorship program continues to employ leading-edge technology. We have developed and are distributing a credit card-sized network device that contains web addresses of popular sites, checks their accessibility from countries that censor access to the web and reports these blockages back in real time. Another tool developed by the BBG’s IAC program allows users to download and browse web content from a satellite feed outside the authoritarian firewalls and slow bandwidth encountered in places like Iran and Cuba even if the Internet is completely shut-off.

In some cases, we must transition from the traditional platforms that we’ve been using for many years, such as shortwave, and onto the newer platforms.  We can’t do it so quickly that we hurt our audiences.  For example, in places like Nigeria and rural Afghanistan, we continue to have substantial SW radio audiences even as there is an explosion of use of cell phone technology.

At the same time, we now deliver content via mobile and have grown users of U.S. international broadcasting’s content to over six million new users per month. For example, we’re reacting to changes in Mali and other hotspots by creating simple, low-bandwidth audio distribution channels for mobile phones.

Given the speed of change in marketplaces around the globe and the shifting habits of our old and new audiences, I am gratified that our dedicated team has made such important progress even as I know we have to be faster and more nimble in the days to come. I know we can be!

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