NOAA builds networks in Africa

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, is building a communications network in Africa to talk about the weather.

"Why would a bunch of weather guys build a network?" Kelly Sponberg, coordinator of NOAA's climate information project, wondered aloud during a Jan. 15 conference in Washington, D.C. "The usual response is that it's not my job to build a communications infrastructure. Well, it is—at least in part," said Sponberg, speaking at a USAID conference on communications technology in disaster and development assistance.

The purpose for building a communications infrastructure—which is based on solar-powered "wind-up" radios and digital radios—is to get critical weather data into the hands of farmers in developing countries, he said.

NOAA is doing this in conjunction with the WorldSpace Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that beams weather information via satellite to rural areas equipped with a digital satellite receiver, which then relays the data to local and regional radio stations for broadcast.

In recent years, NOAA has helped get thousands of digital and wind-up radios into African communities. The radios carry AM, FM and short-wave bands.

Sponberg, working with Niger and a Netherlands agency, also helped design and implement the digital radio satellite broadcasts that now provide critical meteorological data to the developing countries.

The same data is formatted for the Web and available to computer users in Africa via satellite link, Sponberg said.

With the broadcast, NOAA gives Africans what they need in order to make forecasts and related bulletins relative to agriculture planning and programs, he said.

But, aside from the weather reports, locals are also able to use the radios for any other kind of content, he said. "If it's going to be used 99 percent of the time for entertainment or other uses, so be it."

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