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Radio ahead

By Dr. Daniel Schaffer, Public Information Officer, Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics and Third World Academy of Sciences

ICTP’s Aeronomy and Radiopropagation Laboratory has given a face-lift to an old technology and put it to use in advancing the communication revolution in Nigeria.

In our fast-paced electronic world, technologies with an eighteen month shelf-life are often considered to be aging equipment, just one step from a museum showcase or even the dustbin.

Yet, sometimes even half-century-old communication technologies can help power today’s communication revolution. That’s exactly what’s happened in Nigeria, where radiopropagation technologies, the same technologies that first brought news and music to the world more than 75 years ago, have helped to usher in the use of email and the internet, all with the assistance of ICTP’s Aeronomy and Radiopropagation Laboratory that launched the effort together with the ICTP Scientific Computer Section.

“Satellite technologies require an infrastructure beyond the resources of countries like Nigeria and other developing countries,” explains Sandro Radicella, head of the Laboratory. And while cable is more manageable, it is still expensive. Moreover, once cable fibre is put into the ground, it’s not only difficult to maintain but virtually impossible to replace without severe disruptions and costs ? distinct liabilities when software technologies, system applications, and individual and institutional demand are changing so rapidly.

That’s where the propagation of radio waves and equipment that can receive and transmit these waves comes into play. And that’s why ICTP’s Aeronomy and Radiopropagation Laboratory has been aggressively pursuing this strategy for the past four years.

“ICTP research and training activities in this field actually began in 1989,” explains Radicella. “At the time, we provided research and training solely for such conventional uses as voice transmission and reception.” Radicella adds that “We began to shift gears, or, should I say, dials, in the late 1990s when we realised that radiopropagation technologies held enormous potential to jump-start the use of email and the internet in the developing world. We thought that our embrace of radiopropagation technologies could help address some of the difficult problems of access that were contributing to the North-South digital divide.”

For Radicella and his colleagues, turning to radio waves as a primary source of technology for advancing the communications revolution was like taking an old coat out of your closet and matching it with a new scarf to give the coat renewed style and flair.

With the help of ICTP Associates Emmanuel Ekuwem and Gabriel Olalere Ajayi, the Centre’s Aeronomy and Radiopropagation Laboratory conducted an extensive survey of universities and research institutes in Nigeria to determine which one would be the best candidate to test their strategy.

“Developing countries, like Nigeria, arrived late in the global digital arena,” says Ekuwem. “In the case of Nigeria, the quality of the public telecommunication infrastructure was poor and the level of penetration low. We needed to adopt broadband solutions that were flexible and easy to deploy and reroute. The only solution that met all these requirements was radio technology.”

The choice for the initial effort was Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, largely because it already had a group of faculty members who had participated in the Centre’s radiopropagation activities and thus enjoyed the prerequisite training, skills and contacts to assume local responsibility for this effort.

The impact proved both immediate and dramatic. The pilot project that began in Obafemi Awolowo University soon spread throughout Nigeria’s teaching and research community. Today, the system reaches literally thousands of scientists and scholars. More recently, it has also helped farmers, meteorologists and medical practitioners link to the broad knowledge base now passing through the nation’s universities and research institutes.

“Indeed the ultimate importance of this initiative,” notes Emmanuel E. Ekuwem, who participated in the Centre’s earliest workshops on radiopropagation for electronic communications, “lies not just with the ability of university students and faculty to communicate quickly and efficiently with one another. Rather, the system’s true and lasting value lies with the global connections that students and faculty now have with like-minded associates and colleagues via the internet.”

Ekuwem has tapped this interest by establishing his own radiotechnology and application business, Teledom International, located in Ile-Ife, which serves students, faculty, government officials and even private entrepreneurs. The business has become the largest and most profitable of its kind in Nigeria.

Ekuwem’s personal success has enabled him to illustrate another measure of the programme’s success by contributing US$3000 to the ICTP School on Radio Use for Information and Communication Technology, which was held from 3 to 21 February this year in Trieste. This marks the first time that a private firm has provided direct financial assistance to an Aeronomy and Radiopropagation Laboratory activity.

In fact, it is one of the few times that ICTP has received a donation from a private company in the developing world.

“Ekuwem’s contribution,” says Radicella, “not only provides a welcome boost to our activities’ budget but also serves as a valuable signal that what we are doing has helped improve the lives of students and researchers throughout Nigeria - both in intangible and tangible ways.”

For more information, please contact: Sandro Radicella: rsandro@ictp.trieste.it

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