New Humanitarian Use of an Old Technology: Broadcasting over Shortwave Radio after a Disaster hits

Source: Thu, 24 Jul 2014 10:26 AM
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In June 2014 the HFCC, an association dedicated to frequency management and planning for shortwave broadcasters and a new Member of the CDAC Network, undertook its first shortwave radio trial in Jakarta. This trial is part of a new long term project called International Radio for Disaster Relief, or IRDR, designed to enable the shortwave radio broadcast of vital information over long distances to populations affected by disaster. Oldrich Cip, the Chair of the HFCC, outlines just why shortwave radio is an important communication tool in emergencies and how, by working with CDAC Network Members, the HFCC can contribute to enhancing information access.

Why Shortwave Radio?

The discovery of radio waves and how they could be used for communication began with a focus on longwave radio band using frequencies of less than 300 kHz. All spectrum above this limit had been considered useless by authorities for commercial use, and was subsequently offered to radio amateurs. In 1921, a breakthrough came  when amateurs realised that transatlantic shortwave radio communication was possible in what was once considered a ‘useless’ spectrum and could be achieved by bouncing the radio waves off the ionosphere so that they curve around the earth.

Following this, shortwave radio has always been seen as having the potential to be a communication tool in emergencies. Many amateur radio enthusiasts have used shortwave radio in disaster situations, with this being seen as one of the options for communication available ‘when all else fails’, as it doesn’t rely on local connectivity. While this role is well recognised, valued and appreciated by the communities who listen to shortwave, as well as global institutions, such as the ITU, which manage and regulate the use of the radio spectrum, large scale shortwave broadcasting with powerful transmitters has not been used for disaster relief until more recently, where broadcasters, active in the  HFCC, are beginning to realise its potential to help in disaster-affected areas.

No license is required from the target country for shortwave radio, which is a key advantage of the technology. This means it can become operational extremely quickly. But with only a limited spectrum of frequencies available, coordination is required to ensure that the airwaves are free. It is exactly this coordination role that is taken by the HFCC and operationalised through its latest project.

About the Project

The International Radio for Disaster Relief (IRDR) project was developed in cooperation with the Arab States and Asia-Pacific broadcasting unions. In total, 12 international radio broadcasters took part in the trials that were carried out on 4 and 5 June 2014.

Codes and Names of Participating Transmitter Sites and Organisations

Transtmiter Site Code / Transmitter Location / Broadcaster/Organisation

BEI / Beijing / RTC China

BGL / Bangalore / All India Radio

BOC / Bocaue, Phillipines / First Response Radio, FEBC

HBN / Palau / NHK World Radio Japan

MDC / Madagascar / MGLOB

NAK / Nakhon Sawan / BBC Babcock

PHT / Tinang, Phillipines / International Broadcasting Bureau - USA

SHP / Shepparton / ABC Radio Australia

SMG / S. Maria di Galeria, Vatican / Radio Vatican

TRM / Trincomalee / Sri Lanka Broadcasting Company

TWR / Agana, Guam / Trans World Radio

UDO / Udorn, Thailand / International Broadcasting Bureau - USA

The project wouldn’t be possible without the global online coordination of frequencies. There are 10 international shortwave bands and, despite a number of transmission cuts, many of these bands are overloaded. The aim of the IRDR project is to identify and select dedicated frequency channels completely free from interference which could then carry life-saving messages to a population affected by disaster.

In the trial, two channels were selected that were outside the regular programme and frequency schedules of all participating broadcasters. Following this, any station that took part could have used these free channels to broadcast messages, but naturally the time-slots for programmes had to be coordinated amongst the trial participants.

All transmissions were constantly monitored by International Broadcasting Bureau monitoring posts in Jakarta and Singapore, and the results – along with the sound samples – were made available to all participants on the HFCC website. Shortwave listeners reported being able to receive the radio signal to broadcasting organisations and some also directly to the HFCC. The HFCC received numerous reports of reception from the South Asia target area and also from other world regions. The reports are being confirmed by QSL verification cards, (postcards that confirm that the listener heard a transmission) specially issued for the Jakarta Trial.

The IRDR project is capable of becoming a permanent part of global shortwave coordination. The system that was also used in this first trial is automated and checks on any changes or additions to the system’s database every 10 minutes to avoid conflicts in transmission times and frequencies between the broadcasters. The overview of who is using the channels reserved for disaster relief will be available to all participants world-wide immediately, at any point in time. Through this system, responders would be able to start broadcasting relief messages over shortwave immediately after a real disaster strikes, and coordinate their emergency transmissions by means of the online system.

How Does Shortwave Fit Alongside Other Forms of Radio in a Disaster?

The use of shortwave transmissions as a delivery platform has some important advantages: For example, the transmitter of All India Radio (Fig.1) located at Bangalore and its transmitting antenna which point to South-East was capable of covering Malayan peninsula, Indonesia, Southern Philippines, then further down to New Guinea and the North-West part of Australia. The antenna and transmitter facilities of other participants in the trial provided comparable shortwave coverage areas with tens of millions of potential listeners. Shortwave technology is disaster resistant: The transmitting facilities can be far removed by hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from the disaster zone, which may be suffering from a total communication and information blackout.

Nonetheless shortwave radio for disaster relief also faces its own set of challenges. As well as coordination, which helps find agreed-upon dedicated frequencies, it can sometimes be difficult to find appropriate content for broadcast over such a wide area, or for local communities to access shortwave radio receivers. Lots of community radio stations that broadcast on FM frequency are based locally in disaster zones: while this makes them more difficult to set up, they can more easily generate engaging content for the local communities that they serve, with that community, and also hand out radios so the community can listen in. Shortwave broadcasters need to be able to access suitable content for broadcast and the IRDR project was a great example of how this can happen as BBC Media Action, a CDAC Network Member, provided the content for the trial broadcast.

Mike Adams, International Coordinator with First Response Radio (FRR) which broadcasts FM radio from a suitcase in a crisis, really believes shortwave can have an impact through partnerships like this. ‘Shortwave has an amazing capability to broadcast over hundreds of miles, which means a disaster area can receive blanket coverage. By joining the CDAC Network, the HFCC and a whole range of organisations committed to shortwave radio can capitalise on the diverse membership of the Network to produce appropriate content with local partners on the ground, ensuring that what is broadcast is relevant for the communities affected’ stated Mike. ‘Used together, SW and FM radio can provide critical information to affected communities that is relevant for them and ensure that two-way communication is developed with humanitarian responders.’

The trial of IRDR made a good start with the pre-selection of dedicated shortwave frequencies in the broadcast bands that are overloaded. The IRDR project has great potential and its successful implementation will depend on making the information and content needed by the affected population available for broadcast as well as on the possibility of external funding of emergency transmissions, as shortwave broadcasting over huge areas can be quite costly.

With many shortwave installations being cut worldwide, the HFCC feels that it is important to act now to ensure that those responding to emergencies can capitalise on the opportunities shortwave radio affords in providing vital life-saving information to affected communities. 

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