Google, Microsoft pilot TV white space projects in Kenya and South Africa

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Google, Microsoft and regulators in Kenya and South Africa are piloting TV "white space" technology, geared towards enabling connectivity in rural areas and removing barriers for small businesses interested in Internet service provision.

Google is piloting a test in Cape Town, South Africa, in conjunction with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) while Microsoft collaborated with the Ministry of Information and Communication in Kenya. The tets are expected to prove that TV white spaces can be used to provide connectivity to rural areas that may not have essential services such as electricity. The network gear is solar powered.

The debate for utilization of TV white spaces has heated up as governments and regulators evaluate ways to utilize the spectrum that will be available after migration from analog to digital TV platforms. Some people feel the spectrum should be auctioned while others feel that the spectrum should be provided free for some operators in remote areas.

"TV white space signals can also penetrate physical obstacles like trees, buildings, and rugged terrain, common in most parts of Africa, and can transmit wireless Internet over long distances," said Fortune Sibanda, policy manager for Google South Africa. "White space usage may open up opportunities for cheaper broadband deployment by smaller ISPs across the continent, with the attendant benefits of economic growth and development that come with increased Internet penetration."

White spaces are bands of spectrum between channels that up to now have been unused, to avoid interference. Last month, Google announced that its pilot in South Africa will be broadcast from three base stations located at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in Tygerberg, Cape Town. Ten schools in the Cape Town area will receive wireless broadband to test the technology.

During the trial, Google will attempt to show that broadband can be offered over white spaces without interfering with licensed spectrum holders. Interference has been one of the reasons why broadcast operators and licensed spectrum operators have been reluctant to embrace white space trials.

The Kenyan pilot is in the Nanyuki region and includes five customer locations: the Burguret Dispensary (healthcare clinic), Male Primary School, Male Secondary School, Gakawa Secondary School and Laikipia District Community Library, which are currently all up and running.

"The initial results from the pilot are great," said Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication in Kenya."There is proof that we can significantly cut the cost of Internet in the country and more importantly in the underserved areas; this will enable us to build a self sustaining model without relying on the Universal Access Fund."

Currently, deploying a network in remote places often poses cost and security issues but when the infrastructure is as simple as a TV antenna, it is expected that these problems will be reduced drastically.

"Microsoft believes we can achieve a range of at least 10 kilometers around a base station using a single TV channel, with 16Mbps throughput to end users; ultimately, we feel we will need two base stations to power 20 locations," said Paul Garnett, director of the Microsoft Technology Policy Group. "The latency that we are seeing at the moment is about the same as any typical broadband deployment."

Like many countries, Africa faces major challenges in spectrum pricing, with licenses mainly available to large companies that have the money to pay for them. For prospective ISPs and companies without a large revenue base, unlicensed spectrum creates opportunities for entrepreneurship.

"Lack of available spectrum has allowed mobile operators to operate essentially as oligopolies," said Steve Song, the founder of Village Telco, a company pushing for affordable connectivity in rural areas. "Increasing access to spectrum will open the doors to new market entrants who will hopefully shake things up a bit, as we saw Airtel shake up the market when they arrived in Kenya."

There is no global policy on TV white spaces. Countries like the U.K. and the U.S. are currently testing white space usage. The tests in Kenya and South Africa are meant to check on commercial feasibility of delivering access using unique and innovative business models.

"This is the first globally harmonized opportunity to use dynamic access technologies and techniques, which enable radio communications devices to opportunistically transmit on available radio spectrum, as seen in our white spaces pilots and trials," Garnett said.

Both Microsoft and Google are expecting the regulators in the two countries to develop policies and guidelines that will be unique to the region.

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