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Pocket FM Brings Radio to War-Torn Areas

Small transmitter emphasizes small form factor and affordability

The transmission antenna is easy to set up.
Photos courtesy IXDS

The Pocket FM transmitter can also be used directly from a vehicle; plug in the antenna and you are on air. Shown is a presenter from Culture Radio in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Reaching populations in war-torn areas is a major challenge for radio broadcasters, especially if their main transmitters don’t cover these isolated areas completely.

This is why independent Iraqi broadcaster Alghad Radio is experimenting with book-sized “Pocket FM” transmitters capable of relaying FM signals in a 3.7 mile (6 km) radius.

“After the fall of Mosul, ISIL has worked in disconnecting the people inside Mosul city from the whole world by stopping the GSM cellular network and put more restrictions on the internet,” said Mohammed Al-Mawsili, a 28-year-old from Mosul and manager of Alghad Radio. “For this reason, we’ve set up our radio station to keep a direct link within the people — prisoners — who are still in Mosul. Pocket FM can be used in areas where we cannot reach with the main transmitters where there is a target audience, such as camps and villages.”

The Pocket FM transmitter prototype was built by German engineering firm IXDS using the low-cost Raspberry Pi computer as its heart. It is a smart device that can broadcast content from satellite, USB stick or a direct connected microphone/mixer to a fast-set-up vertical antenna; be remotely-controlled by cellphone; and get its power from a 12-volt car battery, and/or solar panels, a generator or even a plain old wall socket.

The idea behind Pocket FM was to create an inexpensive small FM transmitter that is easy to deploy and power, simple to install and control, and affordable to replace if the original unit gets damaged or stolen.

IXDS designed and built the Pocket FM prototype in concert with Media in Cooperation and Transition, a German nonprofit charity working with the German Foreign Office to get much-needed objective news and information into conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria. Alghad Radio is one of many independent radio broadcasters who have been brought together in this project; the Pocket FM transmitter also is being used in Sierra Leone and Tanzania. IXDS is also adding features to the Pocket FM as results from field tests and actual deployments come, with MiCT taking care of manufacturing these transmitters through third-party contractors.

“Setting up traditional large transmitters and antennas in conflict areas is very expensive and dangerous,” said IXDS Design Lead Katina Sostman. “There is also the risk that your transmission site will be hijacked by the people who are causing the conflict in this region. The Pocket FM concept avoids these issues, in a package that is affordable and easy to work with.”

The Pocket FM transmitter is built in a sealed 8-by-10-inch heat-dissipating metal enclosure. “We didn’t want to use cooling fans, because fans can bring dust into the unit and damage it,” said Sostman. It has a small LCD screen on the front that displays the radio broadcaster’s name, the FM broadcast frequency, the voltage and the output transmitter power.

The range of the transmitter can be increased by elevating the antenna using whatever is available. Turning the Pocket FM on is a matter of connecting the small three-legged vertical antenna, power supply and anything with a headset mini-plug or a USB stick. When the Pocket FM transmitter’s Raspberry Pi unit detects the connections, it switches on.

“To provide security, the Pocket FM can be set with a PIN code that keeps unauthorized users from accessing its controls,” said Sostman. “This can be accessed remotely by smartphone. As well, the unit is designed to automatically scan for unused frequencies to use if its preconfigured frequency is being jammed.”

Alghad Radio has been experimenting with its Pocket FM transmitter “by setting it up in different locations to see where it can be employed to improve our coverage,” said Al-Mawsili. “One of the locations chosen for testing is near Bashiqah mountain, which can be challenging for the main transmitters to reach due to the barrier of the mountain. Locating the PFM beyond the mountain can help cover some areas where we have potential audiences.”

Where Pocket FM could really pay off for Alghad Radio is in reaching temporary settlements with lots of potential listeners, such as internally displaced person camps. “Putting a Pocket FM in an IDP camp is ideal because we don’t have to spend a lot of money on buying and powering big transmitters,” Al-Mawsaili said. “The Pocket FM can provide the same service with a much lower cost.”

The Pocket FM unit is a radio station in a small, fanless metal box. Pocket FM is also being used by the Syria Radio Network, by stations such as Radio ONE FM in Derbassiyeh City. “The device is very easy to use, does not require much effort and works on battery or electricity if available,” said Farhad Yunis, a reporter working for Radio One FM. “The battery runs for hours.”

Using the Pocket FM transmitter, Radio One FM can deliver a professional sounding radio broadcast over a 1.4 mile (3 km) radius “without the cost and bother” of building a conventional FM transmitter site, said Yildiz Shehab, a Radio ONE FM reporter based in Amuda City, Syria. At the same time, the system is discreet: “The antenna is small and no one knows that it is a broadcast radio antenna,” said Shehab.

The bottom line: “Pocket FM is an effective technological solution to the problem of getting radio information to the people who need it most, at a price that virtually anyone can afford,” said Katina Sostman. “It shows what can be done with the creative application of low-cost Raspberry Pi computers to challenging situations.”