- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

MANDERA, Kenya An expectant hush follows a ripple of whispers as excited schoolgirls wait for Hussein Abukar to press a button on a radio.
He does, and a clear voice booms out an English lesson. The girls, dressed in green robes and Muslim head scarves, bend diligently over their exercise books.
The tin-roofed school in this remote northeastern town has no electricity, no television, no computers and few books. But it does boast a WorldSpace radio that broadcasts educational programs seven days a week from a satellite orbiting 22,300 miles above the Earth.
If their teacher had hit a different button, the girls could be listening to National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp., jazz or a South African pop station.
For those with the means to subscribe, WorldSpace radio broadcasts a rich array of news and music to Africa's remotest areas.
Strap the small WorldSpace antenna to the roof of a car, and you can drive across a desert, through anarchic Somalia or around Kenya's Masai Mara game reserve listening to CNN news, Arab pop on the French-Moroccan Medi-1 station, or classical music on the Maestro station.
The scene here in Mandera where there is neither terrestrial television service nor FM radio is part of one man's dream.
After learning that AIDS would kill millions in Africa, Noah Samara set up WorldSpace in 1990 "to spread knowledge for the good of mankind."
"If you look at what killed Africans in the 1990s, it was a lack of information," Mr. Samara said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Washington. "As a result of lack of information, myths were being developed."
More than a decade later, Mr. Samara, an Ethiopian who emigrated to the United States in 1974, is beginning to realize his vision.
In one of the few cases of technology being delivered to consumers in Africa before those in the United States, Africans were able to receive satellite radio in 1999. American listeners got their first taste in September 2001, when XM Satellite Radio went live.
Before Mr. Samara launched his first satellite dubbed AfriStar he struggled for eight years to find business partners and win U.S. regulatory approval.
He also had to persuade 127 countries to allow WorldSpace space in their radio spectrums.
WorldSpace has since launched AsiaStar over Asia and has plans for a Latin American satellite later this year. Each satellite has three transmission beams that can deliver more than 40 digital music and news channels over 5.4 million square miles.
So far, U.S., Japanese and Saudi investors have sunk $1.3 billion into the company. It will be two to three years before WorldSpace breaks even through advertising and subscription services, Mr. Samara said.
So far, WorldSpace has sold only around 250,000 of the radios. The cost is still too high for most Africans.
In Kenya, where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, the cheapest satellite radio costs $60. There are subscription fees for a few services with niche audiences, like NPR.
"Every company has its difficult times," said Mr. Samara, 46. "Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. Am I happy with what we have done? No, because my expectations are bigger."
Compared with the sets sold by U.S. satellite radio carriers XM and Sirius Satellite Radio, which cost from $150 to $300 apiece, the WorldSpace hardware is a bargain. XM and Sirius also charge $10 to $13 per month to receive their broadcasts no free programs.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide