Thursday, December 30, 2010

Leapfrogging Rural Development describes leapfrogging as the phenomenon that occurs when underdeveloped countries skip a generation or more of technology, to embrace a cutting-edge system.  This, for example, has occurred in Africa, where hundreds of thousands of citizens have gained access to cellular telephones and the array of applications that are contingent upon that equipment, without ever having constructed a mile of copper wire to carry land-based telephone systems.  It has occurred, as well, where those same telephones provide access to pseudo-banking facilities, barter and money exchange schemes that stimulate local economies.
In rural North America, that leapfrogging could occur on select frontiers, if local and regional developers respond to the emerging opportunities.
For the past fifteen to twenty years, remote and rural communities have fought to gain access to traditional Internet and hard-wired communications systems, including cable television.  Satellite television has offered a modest alternative, while tower wireless has reached into semi-remote communities.  Wimax, though, offers 100% penetration where conventional line-of-site wireless fails.  At the same time, 802.11g and 802.11n wireless radio connect means that Wimax capabilities, built into every new laptop, could be used to establish fully mobile telephone service, through the Internet, at a fraction of the cost of 3G or 4G cellular mobile systems.
By leapfrogging hard-wired systems, remote communities could build  a regional network to rival national wireless providers, and enter the global business community by building virtual offices.
Over the past two decades, natural gas providers have reached pipeline tentacles into smaller rural communities, but still have thousands more yet to service.  Their petro-heat solutions, though, may have already reached the stage of obsolescence, without ever being implemented.   Dozens of forward-looking communities are attacking the energy problem head on, by building closed loop heating and energy networks with geothermal, solar/photovoltaic and wind power systems.
A reverse form of connectivity ( a dis-connectivity, in reality) has been taking place as rail spur lines have been decommissioned across North America, limiting the options of farm growers to move their produce to markets.  Rather than be victimized by the shift, these producers have built biodiesel and ethanol plants, eliminating the need to transport their product to distant markets.  At the same time, they have disconnected, in part, the petroleum suppliers that have called the farmers “clients.”  It is a type of reverse leapfrogging.
Distance education is a variation on leapfrogging, eschewing conventional classrooms in favour of more flexible and portable education strategies at all levels.  This allows for a two-way flow of teaching, with the potential for education directed inward toward urban centres from the country, as well as outward.  It is not just the information flow, but the access to live video from any point where the Internet can be accessed.  That opens the door to hundreds of business possibilities.
In order to employ leapfrog strategies effectively, rural development needs to be less focused on what they lack in terms of conventional infrastructure, access or processes, and what they can forego in those areas while implementing forward-looking development projects.
Where will the next open door to leapfrog industry or technology present itself?  Will it be in off-the-pavement transportation, or in ecological conversion technologies?  Will it be in unique energy transmission processes or in innovative shelter systems that are independent of urban manufacturing environments?  We simply do not know.  However, as technology breakthroughs occur, rural entrepreneurs and community leaders should look away from seeking to emulate city systems, and explore new opportunities to bypass existing dinosaurs and location-focused infrastructure.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Low Output Community FM Radio

When the United States Senate passed the Low Power Community Radio Act last week, it opened the door for the creation of thousands of small FM stations across the continent and, in particular, rural communities.  This bill closely compares to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission’s regulations governing low-output FM broadcasting in Canada.
In Canada, those community radio stations must operate as not-for-profit organizations, with specific requirements for local content and non-traditional programming.  Similarly, in the USA, the current requirement for low-power stations is that they are non-commercial in nature. At first blush, this may seem to be focused on university campus radio, travellers’ information stations and the like, but, in fact, provides a tremendous boost to rural development efforts.
In 2008, the typical cost for acquiring a full-power licensed radio station exceeded $2,500,000. That, clearly, was beyond the reach of small towns across North America.  The maximum power outputs, prior to the LPCRA, were so low that broadcast ranges were measured in hundreds of meters, at maximum.  In Canada, prior to changes in 2000, stations were limited by hours of operation, and outputs that made reception difficult at distances of a mile or so. 
Many communities opted to use the Internet to set up online broadcasters, thus skirting many of the regulations to which radio broadcasters were subjected.  While this option allowed for an exponentially greater reach, the irony was that, in rural communities, many homes and communities had limited or no access to high-speed internet, meaning that they effectively could not access those small broadcasters.
While reception quality for online broadcasts tends to be reasonable, many people who otherwise are able to access the sites fail to do so because of the inconvenience of having to open a browser, enter a URL, tie in speakers to the computer, and so on.  Accessing a radio station simply requires one or two pushes of a button. Thus, ease of use becomes integral to the decision of whether to tune into a local broadcast. Once a typical radio listener tunes in a station, that station will remain the one of choice for upwards of several hours. Since loyalty to a station is important to develop a following and encourage participation, ease of access and ease of use become critical determinants of a station’s success.
With the lifting of restrictions on community radio station development, the two primary considerations that will govern viability of a new station are community participation and cost (both capital and operating).
Fortunately, there is no shortage of suppliers and distributors of broadcast transmitters, antennae, consoles and peripheral equipment that are needed to establish a workable broadcast center.  Costs for a complete setup begin in the range of $40-55,000.  However, that is only half of the equation needed.
Community input may be the most difficult to generate and manage, yet appear to be one of the easiest.  It is common to see almost universal support for such undertakings, but once a recruit is asked to reach into his pocket, or commit volunteer time on a regular basis, much of that initial support evaporates.
A reasonable option is to set up the local station as a non-commercial operation, but solicit local businesses to input money into the station’s start-up costs, in exchange for advertising and/or time slots.  Similarly, community groups and charitable undertakings may be asked to provide manpower, in exchange for time slots during operating hours.  By relying on commercial operations for capital costs, and community groups for operational input, financial risks are minimized.
A supplementary option for successful setup and operation may involve partnering with nearby communities, and arranging for re-broadcast (repeater signals) in those local areas.  This increases the number of businesses and community groups that may participate, and increases the reach of local promotions and advertising impact.
Within this general premise, there are almost limitless permutations and combinations that will allow for quick deployment of your local radio station. By passing the LPCRA, along with existence of the CRTC Canadian regulations, thousands of communities now are granted access to their own localized radio operations, and, with that, the potential for building another brick in the framework of community economic development.