BBG operates in countries where access to information is restricted – either by geography, development, infrastructure or censorship. It is our job to navigate those obstacles—whatever they are—to provide our audiences with the truth. Throughout 2017 BBG distributed content created by its networks to their audiences in the most cost-effective, reliable and efficient way.
The Agency’s Office of Technology, Services and Innovation (TSI) reorganized some of its offices an operations in an effort to further improve network and information systems security, as well as streamline BBG content distribution to its global audience. The result was yet another year with no server compromises, even while governments and private firms around the world faced more cyber security risks than ever before. And, TSI distributed BBG content to a large BBG audience, which has grown from 165 million in 2012 to 278 million in 2017. The growth has been driven by a successful affiliate model supported by TSI’s Business Development office, and by support for a wide variety of media and platforms targeting the agency’s global markets.
Throughout 2017 BBG worked in coordination with the networks’ language services to extend the deployment anti-censorship technologies in their broadcasting regions enabling citizens and journalists to safely access and share BBG news information and other online content.
In 2017 the average number of monthly users of BBG-funded internet censorship circumvention technology, Psiphon, was 2.53 million.
During the protest in Iran in December 2017 Psiphon was very successful in providing access to millions of Iranians who relied heavily on it when other circumvention tools were being blocked. Specifically, page views to BBG Persian sites tripled during this period and the number of people using the tool jumped from an average of just over 200,000 unique daily users before the protests to 800,000 during the protest. At the height of the protests, there were about 30,000 new requests for the tool via the email auto-responder each day from a negligible number prior to the protest.
TSI’s Broadcast Technologies division monitors Agency’s radio transmissions, and reacts very quickly to jamming of shortwave frequencies by surging with more frequencies than the jammers can block. For example, throughout FY2017 TSI monitored what is believed to be Ethiopia’s jamming of VOA’s Horn of Africa service shortwave transmissions. TSI was able to add several shortwave frequencies until the Ethiopian capacity to jam was overwhelmed. In fact, the Ethiopian state broadcaster repurposed some of its own frequencies to its jamming arsenal in an effort to keep up. The result is that VOA’s Horn of Africa broadcasts can be heard in Ethiopia, despite Ethiopia’s jamming efforts.
Cuban Internet Freedom Conference
The second annual Cuban Internet Freedom Conference was held on November 7th and 8th, 2017 at the Miami Ad school in the Wynwood Art District of Miami. Over 40 Cubans living on the island attended the event. The event included conferences on topics such as Cuban apps, Cuban independent media, Cuban social media and internet.
TSI also surged shortwave broadcasts in response to crises. For example, in August 2017, additional frequencies were added to broadcast VOA and RFA Khmer language programming to Cambodia, after the government there began pressuring local stations to stop carrying BBG content.
To this day, the BBG operates one of the broadest range of content delivery platforms on earth—everything from shortwave radio to high-tech encrypted live mobile broadcasting—to make sure our audience can access our content.
New and social media
As audiences around the world increasingly use mobile devices and social networks to get their news and information, BBG is increasing the production of content for these digital platforms.
Open Broadcast Software enables Election Coverage Livestream
BBG introduced tools that enabled VOA to livestream major coverage and other events on Facebook. This initiative helped VOA Language Services create unique programming for social media audiences, resulting in millions of additional video views and a significant boost in audience interactions. Because BBG and VOA are moving beyond Facebook to target more social platforms and over-the-top (OTT) apps in the future, BBG has invested in tools to target multiple social media platforms simultaneously.
BBG set up the very first broadcast-quality Facebook Live Audio event ever on Facebook. To this day, Facebook Live Audio requires Android apps, which typically means a smartphone must be used. Phones do not typically allow broadcast-quality audio inputs. The team worked around these limitations with a mix of technical solutions, giving BBG a rare opportunity to beat all competitors to this emerging social media opportunity.
While there has been a concerted effort to shift our newsrooms to a digital first mentality, it is important to remember that the majority of BBG audiences consume content via traditional media.
TSI’s Network Control Center is the nexus through which nearly all BBG content reaches audiences, exiting the Cohen Building via satellite or terrestrial circuit. Distributing over 1600 hours of audio programming and 328 hours of video programming per day.
Since the unveiling of the new space, the NCC has become a popular place on any VIP tour of the Cohen Building, as one glance at the monitor wall gives visitors at a glance a sense of just how enormous the BBG operation is: more than 12,000 hours of audio and more than 300 hours of video distributed by the NCC every day. US Congressional representatives, their staffs, and foreign dignitaries are among visitors to the NCC.
One of the most important ways that BBG distributes content is through partnerships with local media affiliates, supported by the Agency’s Office of Business Development. Business Development staff at headquarters, as well as regional representatives and dozens of contractors around the world, help build and cultivate relationships that place BBG content on close to 3000 media affiliates, through which approximately two-thirds of the Agency’s audience gets it content.
In FY2017, Business Development’s placement efforts for Current Time, the 24/7 TV and digital network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, program offerings and linear channel continued to dominate efforts in Eurasia. Thirty-eight stations in 13 countries are airing content from the channel; 58 cable, satellite, and over-the-top (OTT) outlets are airing the full 24-hour channel.
While the BBG does not do much direct terrestrial TV broadcasting (most is via affiliate television stations), the Agency does have some TV transmission assets in Iraq. In FY2017, a new 4000-watt transmitter in Baghdad was installed to replace a lower-power backup unit that had been in service when the primary had failed earlier.
As content distribution occurs across many platforms, BBG also ensures the reliability of shortwave, medium wave, and FM transmitters, as well as satellite leases that deliver networks’ content to audiences and affiliates around the world.
Beyond the Cohen building, radio distribution of BBG content is done through and by 19 major Transmitting Stations around the world.
In urban areas where radio remains a dominant medium, the migration of audiences from shortwave and medium wave to FM is complete. In urban areas key to VOA language services, TSI has in recent years built many FMs that have contributed to VOA’s growing radio audience figures. TSI has also supported technical expertise and infrastructure to support VOA’s building of 24/7 streams with news, interactive shows, and dynamic music programming. In FY2017, TSI overcame licensing and logistical hurdles in the Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Togo to enable installation in FY2018 of additional FMs in key cities there.
Keeping the agency’s nearly 100 existing FMs in good working order kept the team busy in FY2017, as well. Repairs or relocations of FMs in Jordan, Palestine, Ghana, Burkina Faso and elsewhere restored and improved FM reception for BBG audiences in these centers.
SW and MW
From Kuwait, BBG networks can continue serving legacy shortwave and medium wave audiences for less money. TSI also continued its review of global distribution, in an effort to continue achieving more efficient use of satellite leases and other distribution tools.
BBG is optimizing its shortwave capabilities by taking advantage of the strategic location and lower operating costs of the Kuwait Transmitting Station. TSI is upgrading its shortwave capacity at the Kuwait Transmitting Station to allow it to be able to serve the overwhelming majority of legacy SW audiences in the most cost-effective manner possible, absorbing transmissions from other stations at a fraction of the cost.