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AFRIK-IT  May 1997

AFRIK-IT May 1997




Max Freund <[log in to unmask]>


African Network of IT Experts and Professionals (ANITEP) List


Mon, 5 May 1997 03:02:41 -0400





text/plain (233 lines)


by Yvette Collymore

   WASHINGTON, Apr. 23 (IPS) -- A new company here believes it has

found a way to provide citizens of poor countries who lack the

time, money and transportation access to classrooms.

   The Washington-based company, WorldSpace, Inc., says it intends

to feed school courses, as well as information and entertainment,

to audiences in developing countries via satellite-fed digital

radio. It will be pitching its plans to distance-learning educators

in Africa next week.

   Part of the plan is to give the concept of long-distance

learning a boost with the help of digital satellite radio. The

bigger picture involves a billion dollar commercial venture that

brings together broadcasters, electronics manufacturers, a large

enough audience willing and able to buy the technology, and the

boosters of the business here.

   WorldSpace was set up in 1990 to carry out the project under

what founder and chief executive officer Noah Samara calls "a

disciplined business plan." WorldSpace has received permission to

launch three satellites to supply digital radio feeds to developing


   "In 1994, we started working with Fortune 500 companies, with

broadcasters from around the world, and with consumer electronics

manufacturers, to anchor a technology which we tailored to fit our

needs," says Samara, a U.S. citizen of Sudanese and Ethiopian


   "Our project grew, through sheer economy of scale, from a $40

million venture to a billion dollar one," he says. Samara says that

WorldSpace raised funds with the help of the New York investment

firm Morgan Stanley and Co. Inc., but he declined to disclose the


   The first of the three satellites for the venture is to be

launched in mid-1998 to cover Africa and the Middle East. The

company has also received a license from the government of Trinidad

and Tobago to operate a satellite to cover Latin America and the

Caribbean. And Australia has approved a license for the company to

move on another satellite for South and Southeast Asia.

   Each satellite is to shed three beams on the respective regions,

and each beam is to deliver a number of digital channels which will

be combined to offer 80 stations with different radio formats. To

access the system, users would have to buy special receivers at an

initial cost of $150 per unit. WorldSpace is also keeping the

manufacturers of these units a secret, only saying that "their main

assets will be their brand name."

   But the secret to the receivers is not the body but the chips

to be placed in them, says Samara.

   For these chips, WorldSpace has signed contracts with SGS

Thomson of Italy and ITT Intermetall of Germany. These companies

are to design and mass-produce two million chips. Samara says he

expects the technology to eventually become available to any chip


   The digital signals are designed to carry both print, audio and

visual data. The more affluent and ambitious user would have a

printer and video screen to take full advantage of the technology.

   But to make this venture attractive to the poorest countries,

WorldSpace has set up a foundation to protect what it calls the

"economic and development" segment of the project.

   Samara, who refers to this aspect of the plan as his "vision,"

says that WorldSpace will allocate about 10 percent of its channel

capacity to the Foundation to serve "development" needs. The rest

is to be commercial space to be made available to a variety of

"service providers."

   African education specialists will get an introduction to the

technology and its proponents at a distance education conference

next week in Ghana.

   "The ministers of education from Africa will decide the extent

to which countries buy into the technology," explains Samara.

   Sponsored by WorldSpace and the Canada-based Commonwealth of

Learning, the estimated 120 participants at the April 27-29

conference in Accra are to discuss how the technology may help to

address what one distance learning expert here described as "the

crisis of education in Africa."

   "Since the 1980s, the populations of developing countries have

steadily progressed in improving their education systems. The same

cannot be said of countries in Africa," says Dr. Stephen Anzalone,

Director for Research and Evaluation of international programs at

the Education Development Center here.

   He cites World Bank estimates which show that while the

continent increased primary school enrollment from 21 percent in

the 1960s to 51 percent in the 1980s, the percentage today has

climbed to 52 percent.

   Some of the conventional approaches to education "are simply not

going to work" in African societies, says Anzalone, who has served

on the advisory committee for the Learning Without Frontiers

Program at the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural

Organization (UNESCO). "Conventional schools with well-trained

teachers and that are well-equipped will not work. They simply

won't reach all the people."

   Long-distance learning, which initially brought instruction to

students only through correspondence courses, eventually

encompassed the use of audio cassettes, radio programs, and video

cassettes. The latest generation of distance education technology

is interactive, including, audio, video, and computer conferencing.

   But the financial constraints in Africa confine distance

learning technology to mainly printed media that is used in

conjunction with audio and video cassettes. That applies to every

educational level on the continent, from the Open University of

Tanzania, to vocational and technical education in South Africa,

to literacy campaigns elsewhere.

   "Technology can offer magic solutions to distance learning,"

says Dr. Abdul Khan of the Commonwealth of Learning, an

organization which helps Commonwealth countries develop distance

learning techniques. "But the question is what technology is more

realistic in terms of accessibility and affordability. Even if

television channels operate, everyone who wants to take part must

have a TV."

   With $1 billion riding on this venture, WorldSpace and other

backers are banking on the appeal of both its commercial and

educational services and on the ability of a large number of people

to buy the $150 receivers.

   They are also banking on developing countries' dependence on

radio as a mass medium. More than 100 million radios are sold each

year in developing countries alone, says Samara.

Copyright 1997 IPS/GIN.  The contents of this story can not be duplicated
in any fashion without written permission of Global Information Networ

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