Why Shortwave Still Matters

Published at 11:03 on 8 November 2011

OK, you’ve just seen (in my last post) how much better than shortwave Internet audio quality can be. One might be tempted to conclude that demonstrates shortwave broadcasting is now obsolete. Not so fast.

First, this is an example where shortwave fares unusually poorly, even by its own standards. The signal paths between India and the USA are so difficult that India has never even tried to target the USA for their shortwave broadcasts. Even though I’ve been lucking out with a strong signal and low local interference the past two mornings, the signal still ends up seriously degraded by being forced to take a multi-hop path over the polar regions. That’s why it has such a fluttery character to it.

If India were to rent time on a transmitter in Eastern Canada or the Caribbean, for example, my audio recording would have had significantly better quality. It still wouldn’t have been as good as the Internet download, of course, but the newscast would have been completely intelligible instead of only partly so.

Second, the US Government does not particularly care if I listen to news broadcasts from India or not. So the government is not blocking my ability to download podcasts of their news bulletins, or requiring ISPs to report the names of their customers that attempt to do so. The Chinese are not so fortunate. If they want to hear news that has not been subject to their government’s censors, the Internet is of little or no use to them. On shortwave, they often end up in cat-and-mouse games with jamming transmitters, but in such games sometimes the mouse wins.

Basically, any communications medium that requires either payment for access and/or third-party (beyond the producer and consumer, that is) infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to censorship. Governments can track or block payments, or pressure the third parties into not carrying the offensive material. Pretty much any satellite or Internet-based means of delivering information ends up falling onto this category.

Direct-broadcast satellites could theoretically provide a real alternative, once there are free (to the consumer) options and they get to the point where there are a large number of such options under a wide diversity of ownership. Those latter points are critical, and current satellite broadcast options do not satisfy either one.

Therefore, shortwave is still really the only option for getting information into an area against the will of the government which controls it. Crappy audio quality beats no audio any day.

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