Schooling from Space

Satellite radio operator, Worldspace, has established a strong footprint in Africa by offering a cheap way to broadcast educational content to schools outside the reach of terrestrial networks. This year, it plans to expand the programme into new countries and integrate its audio and data channels to provide users' with a richer, interactive experience.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  January 30, 2005

|~|Worlspace1.gif|~|M. Sebastian, vice president and general manager of Worldspace’s regional office.|~|While satellite radio providers are grabbing the headlines back in its home country and users are signing up for advertising-free services in droves, US-based Worldspace has taken a different tack with its digital audio offering. Since the launch of its African and Asian satellites in 1999, Worldspace has been using the platforms to deliver audio broadcasts and data services to the developing world, both for entertainment and education. The company’s walled-garden model of content provision and delivery has emerged as a viable solution to help bridge the digital divide in Africa, as well as to provide news, music and sports channels to individual users within the reach of its network. Both satellites are equipped with three beams that send dozens of channels to low-cost, portable receivers. The devices also have an integrated data port that acts as a wireless modem and allows users to download data at various speeds of up to 128 Kbits/s. In the five years since its AfriStar spacecraft lifted off, the company has used its data-casting and audio capabilities to deliver a range of educational applications in areas of the continent where terrestrial services aren’t available. The company has developed a learning channel that teaches listeners about subjects such as HIV/AIDS, as well as completing a tele-medicine project that linked ten hospitals in Ethiopia via an intranet network. Having built a satellite-enabled tele-kiosk solution, it has also provided content and connectivity to rural villages in Mali and Senegal, as well as to refugee camps in Tanzania. Perhaps the biggest project Worldspace has been running in Africa, though, has been in Kenya, where 15,000 schools have been provided with receivers as part of a joint scheme with the country’s Institute of Education. Lessons are piped to schools through the AfriStar satellite’s audio channel, while curriculum and training content for teachers is sent through a 16Kbits/s data connection. US$10 per month is charged to each school for the service, which the company says is being studied by other countries and will be significantly expanded this year. “We have to deploy new receivers, train the teachers and set up the infrastructure in all of the schools, but we should have 30,000 schools online in Kenya by the end of the year,” says M. Sebastian, vice president and general manager of Worldspace’s regional office. “The government is utilising the system to supplement traditional educational services with supplementary lectures from their own institutions or others elsewhere. Each school just needs a Worldspace receiver and adapter, which are sub-US$100 so it’s a highly cost-effective service,” he adds. Another way the company plans to expand upon the scheme is to integrate the data-casting and audio parts of its platform. One part of the Kenyan project is seeing schools receive supplementary reading material, teaching aids and internal communications via the satellite’s data platform. But the company is also looking to bring the two delivery channels together and bring them a richer, interactive experience, such as a powerpoint-style presentation being made alongside a lecture. “What we’re trying to do is to merge the audio and data capabilities together, to provide a combined user experience,” says Sebastian. “In Kenya, the schools are all using the audio broadcasting [platform] and the data part of it is being used in some areas. Utilising these two capabilities, we are aiming to have a significant impact in the area of distance education,” he adds. This year, Worldspace is also concentrating on geographical expansion and building up its user base, which now stands at around 500,000 across Africa, Europe and Asia. The company is still some way off profitability — to break-even, Worldspace says it needs to sign up two million users, spread across both of its satellites’ areas of coverage. Having started out by providing free programming, the company recently altered its strategy by focusing mainly on subscriptions, although it has other revenue streams from sales of its hardware, capacity-leasing to broadcasters and use of its network by corporates to send data to closed user groups. “A couple of million subscribers should lead us to break-even, globally,” says Sebastian. “We’ve changed to a subscription model but we have not yet targeted the active subscription part in certain marketplaces. We launched the subscription business in India a year ago and we are gradually moving into other key marketplaces, through a phased approach. In July, August and September [2004], we were encrypting the channels and making them subscription-based,” he adds. Part of this push will also see the company entering the Middle East for the first time during 2005. The region is covered by both of Worldspace’s satellites —which will allow it to offer a wider range of international channels to expatriates via its audio platform. It says that it is in the process of signing up distributors across the six GCC countries after soft-launching its service in the UAE with channel partner, Al Futtaim, during August 2004. According to Sebastian, the company’s aim is to sign up between 2000 and 3000 subscribers per month in the region by the end of the year. “In the Middle East, we’re focusing on the entertainment side of the business but we have had discussions with potential corporate clients that have been interested in the data capability,” says Sebastian. “Our plan is to be spread across the six GCC countries by the end of the year. But in Saudi Arabia, we may [enter] it in a way that marketing and promotion will only be done in 2006, because it’s such a huge country,” he adds. Further down the line, Sebastian says that Worldspace is also in the process of deploying broadcasting infrastructure which would allow it to offer in-car radio services in the region. The company is also looking to introduce compression technology into its platform, to allow it to broadcast content at 40Kbits/s rather than 64Kbits/s, and free up space on its existing spacecraft for an increase in data usage. But it remains to be seen when the provider will launch its third satellite — a move which was originally expected to happen at the earliest by the end of 2004. The spacecraft will allow the firm to provide the Worldspace service in the Americas, but for now it says it is concentrating on building up subscriptions in its core markets elsewhere. “The five markets we are focusing on are India, the Middle East, South Africa, China and Europe,” says Sebastian. “Once they are developed to a certain stage, we will move to other marketplaces,” he adds.||**||

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