The future of Shortwave
One of the items being asked about in international broadcasting is the viability of Shortwave radio in the age of satellites and the Internet. Wars and authoritarian governments again pose a severe threat to freedom of expression. Regional and global communication, such as local media, local and national radio & TV, the Internet, satellites and phones can easily fall under government control and be censored in several countries around the world.
Virtually every leading international media company and broadcaster is considering this question, including Milano Ventures Ltd. We have been in contact with other organisations and have also sought the advice of leading independent specialists in this field to formulate our picture of the trends. We have been careful to distil truth from fiction and wishful thinking in drawing our conclusions.
There can be no direct replacement for Shortwave as the first line of international broadcasting, especially for most of Africa, some regions in Asia, the Pacific and South America and worldwide in case of political or religious instability, regional or widespread conflict and calamities. Even in the most developed countries in North America and Europe, and in case of conflicts (i.e. Ukraine/Russia in 2022) and destruction of local communication facilities during wars, Shortwave can cover effectively entire countries or niche groups of information savvy and news addict people searching for first-hand news and information not available elsewhere. At the same time, we acknowledge the Internet (if and when available) does have its place and has become increasingly important somewhere down the road.
It is not our intention to hinder progress. Although Shortwave has been a mainstay of our operations for almost three decades now, we were very quick and early in identifying new technologies’ growth potential and were the first broadcasting organisation in Europe to offer streaming media via the Internet as early as 1994.
Our investigations have become very concerned about specific commercial forces that would attempt to depict satellite and other technologies as a panacea. Based on other broadcasters’ experience and the thoughts of other qualified observers in this field, we caution against a complete transition into these new audio technologies at the expense of Shortwave.
Certain governments and international broadcasters already fell into this trap, and now, unfortunately, some may regret it. Once a shortwave station has been demolished. Unfortunately, it will be pretty long and costly to bring it back on the air.
The importance of Shortwave radio broadcasting
There is much pessimistic talk today about the validity of Shortwave broadcasting as a vehicle of international media. Critics present several arguments: high operating costs, environmental considerations, a need to re-channel available funds into satellites and the Internet, and loosely termed a decline in Shortwave. This catalogue of opposing arguments appears sound and reasonable from the broadcast planner and decision-maker. However, from the perspective of a large audience segment, reductions in shortwave services are inexplicable and a source of frustration and even anger.
In a period of restructuring and cost-reduction, these are contemporary buzzwords used and abused so frequently as a catch-all excuse to justify virtually any action taken by management or governments, regardless of how inappropriate. So-called market forces rule the media. Radio and television no more produce programs but products. Today there are no listeners but markets.
Superficially, the shortwave cost compared to satellite, local FM, AM (Medium Wave) program distribution, or Internet streaming appears higher. But if market penetration and acceptability are considered and the crucial factor of the personal cost to the listener, shortwave wins hands down. There are millions of shortwave receivers in use worldwide. They are compact, portable, easy to use, and cheap. Technically speaking, there is no other sound broadcasting medium that can compete with Shortwave in these respects.
Overall in this short analysis, we consider analogue shortwave vs other media intended for international broadcasting instead of digital shortwave, or DRM. Unfortunately, after decades of DRM trials, unless there are mass availability and penetration of low cost and technically viable DRM receivers, we believe that digital AM & digital Shortwave will remain a mere scientific experiment.
The mobility factor
Mobility is a massive advantage in Shortwave and another striking deficiency in satellite sound broadcasting and Internet streaming. Current technology does not permit us to carry a satellite or internet receiver in our pocket and take it along on our travels. Moreover, reception of continuous audio or video streaming on mobile phones or internet radio devices in mobility is mostly unaffordable or technically unreliable in most parts of the world because of the widespread unavailability of high-speed internet, high wireless Internet costs and high battery consumption. Cable distribution of international programs is often cited as a promising alternative to direct home satellite reception, but cable installations are also fixed; they cannot be used away from the home setting.
The political, religious and emergency factor
Perhaps the most crucial reason for retaining redundant capabilities of Shortwave broadcasting to the exterior is that radio broadcasts operated from Shortwave transmitters and directional antennas may reach areas that may be sealed from other media (paper, local radio & TV, Internet) and will overcome any permanent or temporary ban (i.e. in case of elections, wars or censorship) of using local media to carry international or foreign programs. In addition, although Shortwave use nationally is not common, there are countries (i.e. Peru, India, Africa) where shortwave is also used nationwide and can be used in emergencies to reach a vast area even with a single transmitter.
Be it for reasons of foreign politics, religious proselytism or even for goodwill, retaining and maintaining Shortwave broadcasting capability guarantees free flow of information, which may be a necessity in time of conflict or emergency, to reach a foreign audience, our citizens or our group members, both inland and abroad.
The cost factor
Analogue Shortwave receivers (sometimes called “world radios”) are cheap and affordable. Currently, Amazon carries shortwave receivers starting from about US$ 15.00. Less expensive radio receivers are available in Asia from manufacturers in China and Taiwan. Higher quality shortwave PLL receivers with digital frequency readout cost around US$ 100 and more for professional radios. This is far below the cost of a computer, a smartphone, tablet, TV or satellite receiver and makes shortwave receivers affordable even to the poorest segments of the world populations in Africa and Asia.
Billions of dollars have been invested in telecommunication satellite technology. It is elementary that the investors expect a return on their investments, and considering the limited life span of satellites, this return must be as fast as possible. Today’s main thrust is television, and it was for TV that the current broadcast satellite technology was designed. In concrete terms, the transmission capacity concept for these satellites was designed with TV in mind, not radio. To use the ITU terminology, Sound Broadcasting was promoted later to merchandise over-capacity and improve the return on investment.
Furthermore, accessing sound channels on satellites is user-unfriendly and therefore unattractive for most people. Although impressive statistics based on satellite households are often quoted to support the satellite radio argument, only a very tiny fragment of this potential audience ever listens to radio via satellite. In Europe, where satellite radio is available on several TV satellites, only a few per cent of satellite households ever use their satellite receiver for sound broadcasting.
As far as satellite TV programming, the matter is not quite the potential audience that may be reached using a constellation of satellites to cover the entire globe. A single shortwave transmitter could cover all. But instead, the point is who watches satellite TV, not who can manage it. Again, as we will see for other media, satellite TV reception is not generally available in most parts of Africa and Asia’s poorest regions, outside of the main urban areas.
Since around the year 2000, the progressive use of Internet radio & video streaming and text content delivery (news websites) have been a cheap way for international broadcasters to replace Shortwave broadcasting. However, the week’s point of Internet delivery is that the Internet is confined to a world average of 60% (source: 2020 data on World Development Bank Indicators, much less than 10% in some countries in Africa and Asia. Also, according to the World Development Bank Indicators, fixed broadband subscriptions in 2020 were stuck to a mere 16% worldwide average.
Only in the most significant towns in Africa, and mainly in the northern Mediterranean areas, the Internet is becoming more available. Still, the Internet may be quickly censored or controlled. For example, in Russia, China, Ethiopia, and Iran, access to Internet content can be limited or unavailable due to government censorship or severe bandwidth capacity problems.
FM and AM relays for international broadcasting
Standard AM and FM stations lose their power as their signals dissipate along the ground over long distances. In shortwave, the opposite is true. The earth is encased in an invisible covering of gases called the Ionosphere. This acts as a mirror, reflecting shortwave signals to Earth, thus making it possible to cover vast distances with a single transmitter. This is why shortwave is so efficient and cost-effective in covering large regions and populations that would not be covered with a single FM, AM or a network of FM transmitters.
Moreover as proven by several International broadcasters, laws and political situations may vary in time and under political or war circumstances so to limit the use of local stations by foreign broadcasters or by local political or religious groups to the ruling party. Shortwave can be operated from several thousand kilometres away of the target and can be made almost immune from interferences and jamming, using careful frequency selection and monitoring.
Like it or not, from a purely technical point of view, the fact is, there is nothing at this moment to replace shortwave. One day there may be. In the meantime, it is good and wise to gain a foothold in the new technologies, and complement the use of shortwave with internet streaming, satellite, AM and FM relays, and maybe experiment with DRM, but not to overestimate or over-represent their value. If market orientation is truly important, then we would have to admit that the demand is still for alternative sources of news and information delivered by shortwave in poor, remote and developing countries and elsewhere in situations of emergency, and political or religious conflicts.
To quote the old saying: “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Another popular and wise saying is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. We are in favour of new technology, provided it demonstrates a clear superiority to what is currently in use. In the case of analogue shortwave, some would like to bury it before it has even died.
NEXUS-International Broadcasting Association (NEXUS-IBA) is a non-profit association of international broadcasters and program producers founded in 1990 in Milan, Italy. NEXUS-IBA aims to provide all necessary means at our disposal for the effective dissemination of content on radio, the Internet and any media in general. To fulfil its aims, NEXUS-IBA also offers its technical facilities, as well as consulting services to medium and large organisations on broadcasting and emerging media technologies.
People working and volunteering for NEXUS-IBA are professionals, teachers, university professors and researchers, journalists, students and engineers, some of them devoting their spare time and resources as a public service to the global community. On June 15, 1995, NEXUS-International Broadcasting Association was officially approved for association with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, and since 1988 it has been active in promoting the work and activities of its membership through radio, TV and the Internet.
About Milano Ventures Ltd
From Dublin, Ireland, Milano Ventures Ltd. offers content media delivery services worldwide both to NEXUS-IBA’s members and commercial clients. Services offered by Milano Ventures include: international broadcasting, disaster recovery, professional e-mail, software and application development, domain registration, web marketing & SEO, high reliability WorldDirector cloud hosting and related consulting services.