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Thinking Around the Box

I recently discovered a fascinating report from the United Nations World Television Forum (www.un.org/tvforum), which met in New York City last November to discuss the "global digital divide." Here are some data that hit me: There are 1.5 billion television sets in the world and 2.5 billion radios — but only 400 million PCs. Television and radio devices reach over three quarters of the world population, while the Internet reaches only 5 percent.

Two months prior to the forum, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the world media community to help reduce extreme poverty in the developing world by building "digital bridges." It occurs to me that one way of bridging the divide between streaming and analog media — and therefore between those with Internet access and those without — is through rebroadcast. The United Nations has extended its own media footprint by sending FTP files for rebroadcast through stations such as Radio China International. "Streaming has broadened our reach," says Mahbub Hmad, head of the U.N. General Secretariat’s IT section. Radio is particularly useful in countries with low literacy rates, says Hmad. Connection to the Internet via Web radio devices was another possibility discussed at the U.N. forum.

Televisions with set-top boxes represent a digital bridge with great commercial potential, especially in Asia. Last year Microsoft launched the Venus — a $180 set-top box that enables Web access via the TV, with some PC functions — in Hong Kong and China. Narrowband streaming of on-demand content via television is the next step, says Jon DeVaan, senior vice president of Microsoft TV. "Basically it boils down to affordability," he says. "If you’re in the developing world, you’re probably going to want to access the Internet via television. And eventually, every TV’s going to have a computer in it."

In the poorest countries, access to any form of media is limited, and basic infrastructure such as clean water and child immunization programs are higher priorities. But one feasible bridge to these countries is the community PC. The U.N. Development Program has set up Internet cafes in Bhutan and Egypt, and is working with Cisco Systems to set up high-speed Internet access in other developing countries. Africa Online has set up a pan-African network of community PCs called E-Touch centers, where one popular application is streaming soccer video. Ayisi Makatiani, chief executive officer of Africa Online, says that the best strategy for the poorest countries is to leapfrog television and create a PC infrastructure. The challenge in these countries is to prove that the technology can be installed cheaply.

Television and radio devices still dominate the global media picture, and the landscape of worldwide media convergence is still hazy. But the essential bridge connecting the landscape, and the key to understanding the convergence picture, is Internet Protocol. IP is not just a different delivery mechanism; it also changes the nature of the content. In March, a Nielsen report revealed that Miami has the highest per capita rate of streaming media consumption in the United States: The city’s large Latino population looks online, not on TV, for Latino content. Putting this together in my head with the U.N. numbers, it struck me that what’s happening is not a conflict between TV and streaming. It’s a shift in the nature of content that applies to all devices. It’s the difference between broadcast and narrowcast, and the fact that digital networks have made narrowcasting much easier than ever before.

Broadcast — in the sense of mass entertainment shows like The Sopranos or The Simpsons — will always be with us. But for the United Nations, trying to reach the doctor in Kinshasa and the farmer in Nepal and the schoolteacher in Belize, the billion-channel universe is perfect. Streaming — in the sense of IP-based narrowcasting, to whatever device happens to be available — is perfect.

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