Why 'Old' Tech Like Radio Is Still Important

The internet isn’t always the best way to do things

Key Takeaways

  • The BBC has revived its shortwave radio broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia.
  • Shortwave bounce around the planet, and can be picked up with a cheap, battery-powered unit. 
  • Radio can enter where the internet is blocked.
Closeup on a short wave radio.

Kypros / Getty Images

Shortwave radio (SW) bounces across the globe between sea and sky, can be picked up on cheap, handheld equipment, and is almost impossible to block. That's why the BBC has resurrected its SW broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia this week. 

Older technologies like radio might seem quaint and out of date, but they still have many advantages over the internet. They are broadcast over the air, and all you need is a small, battery-powered box to pick them up, with no internet or data plan required. Radio's range is much greater than that of Wi-Fi or cellular data, and while it can be jammed, that's not practical on a country-wide scale. Russia understands the importance of free news. Last week it attacked Kyiv's main radio and TV tower. But the BBC's broadcasts will be harder to stop. 

"Unlike streaming services which require an internet connection and can be taxing on a laptop battery, communication by radio usually just requires a simple device like a radio tuner or a CB transmitter, which can be handheld and usually have long battery lives," cybersecurity expert and software engineer Russ Jowell told Lifewire via email. 

Good Vibrations

Even though the internet grew from a distributed network designed to survive attacks on its infrastructure and route around broken nodes, it doesn't do so well against intentional blockages. China's Great Firewall censors incoming packets, for example, and in the past week, Russia has been cut off from the global internet

"... communication by radio usually just requires a simple device like a radio tuner or a CB transmitter, which can be handheld and usually have long battery lives."

Radio broadcasts require powerful transmitters, which aren't available for individuals but can send data over vast distances. Shortwave radio waves literally bounce around the globe. The waves are reflected by the Earth's ionosphere and can therefore travel beyond the horizon. 

In 2008, the BBC stopped broadcasting shortwave to Europe, because it was redundant. Anyone in Europe could listen on FM, satellite radio, or online. With those options in danger, the BBCs shortwave World Service, currently broadcasting in English for four hours per day, is an essential outside source of news. 

Inter-not

We've transferred pretty much everything we do to either the internet, or to our phones, or both. Cameras, radios, video calls, TV shows and movies, games—all of it is digital or digitized. The consolidation is convenient, but it is not necessarily robust or easy to deploy. Sometimes, older technologies can do better. For instance, SMS messages can be carried over regular cellular networks without any internet data capabilities. These networks might often be found in places that 3G, LTE, or even EDGE networks don't reach. 

"While pastoralists and farmers may not have smartphones and internet capability, they can receive simple SMS messages that alert them to incoming droughts conditions, or market demand to help maximize their livelihoods," Donna Bowater, a communications associate who works with technology companies in the developing world, told Lifewire via email.

The peak of a radio tower in dense fog.

Jan Huber / Unsplash

Another aging communications technology is also seeing renewed interest: Morse code, which, since 2006, is no longer required for a Ham radio operator license.

FLTC, or Flashing Light to Text Converter, can use Morse code lamps on navy vessels to transmit text messages. A sailor uses an app to type out the message, and the app turns the message into Morse code and sends it with a signal lamp. 

A receiving camera translates the flashes back into text. It's Morse code without having to memorize the dots and dashes. FLTC can be used when radio and other communications are down.

And Morse is still taught to US Navy sailors, so there's always a backup option on hand. 

That's not to say the internet doesn't have some tricks of its own. In 2019, the BBC made the World Service available on the TOR network. TOR (The Onion Router) routes internet traffic through a volunteer network of computers to anonymize the user, making it hard or impossible to track browsing activity. 

Shortwave isn't a perfect solution—after all, how many of us have any radio sets at home, let alone SW sets. But if you do have one, all you need is a stack of AA batteries and you're good to go for weeks or months. Try that with an iPhone.

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