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TV White Spaces comes under fire as number of African pilots grows

Last month saw the launch of another TV White Spaces Pilot in Ghana, joining the growing list of pilots across the continent. As the number of pilots has grown and their profile increased, they are meeting more opposition, both on and off the continent. Russell Southwood spoke to Professor H.Nwana of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance and looks at what its opponents argue.

SpectraLink Wireless with help from Facebook and Microsoft have rolled out broadband covering using TV White Spaces (TVWS) across the campuses at All Nations University College and Koforidua Polytechnic in Koforidua, Ghana. It is licensed by Ghana’s regulator NCA as a pilot.

SpectraLink Wireless is supplying its Edutech-as-a-Service platform to the pilot project. The platform will ensure "students and faculty will have access to the best productivity applications on the market and Internet access at true broadband speeds," said John Sarpong, SpectraLink CEO.

This TVWS pilot is part of Microsoft's 4Afrika Initiative, which aims to improve the continent's competitive positioning by facilitating technology access. The pilot in Ghana brings to 10 the number of countries globally where Microsoft is involved in TVWS projects. There are 7 trials in Africa, one of which was run with support from Google in South Africa. Nigeria is about to issue several licences to trial TVWS.

At the African Telecommunications Union Digital Migration Summit last week in Nairobi, there was a session on TV White Spaces. It had Professor H.Nwana, Dynamic Spectrum Alliance on one side and the ITU, Ericsson and a member of CCK on the other side. Those against sought to persuade Africa that TVWS was not a good technology for Africa and that it did not do what was promised.

In a session in which the “antis” seemed to throw every argument but “the kitchen sink” at the idea of TVWS, it is perhaps fairest to summarise some the main ones:

-TVWS may not work. Time for more studies: The most irritating of the arguments as the South African pilot worked extremely well in the spectrum-crowded environment of Cape Town and no-one has yet produced evidence from the pilots saying they don’t work. If the don’t work in Africa, show the evidence.

- TVWS does not have a business model: This is true but it’s hard to see why the ITU should be insisting something has a business model. The technology has to find its business model or fail, which it will do by being given space alongside other technologies.

- TVWS doesn’t solve the digital divide, only fixed lines can do that: True, TVWS by itself doesn’t solve the digital divide but it does address the shortfall in local access in urban areas and it does address rural area coverage as the Kenya pilot demonstrates.

- TVWS didn't generate much extra spectrum. Re-allocation of spectrum as a route was much more likely to give better dividend. – If spectrum is scarce as we are constantly told, then any amount is a bonus. Except in a handful of countries in Africa, this argument is irrelevant because Africa currently has plentiful spectrum.

- Changes in guard band spectrum might destroy the TVWS equipment ecosystem: Again why should those against worry about this? It’s a risk that grown ups take with their own rather than Government money. A new tri-band chipset from Mediatek (2.4GHz, 5.8GHz, and TVWS in one chipset) is due out early next year.

The alternative proposed by the “antis” was that mobile operators could lease out spectrum they were not using on the condition that it could be reclaimed when they needed it. This did not exactly sound like a winning alternative for anyone wanting to run a business but does keep control in the hands of the new “incumbents”, the mobile operators.

The antis were an alliance of the ITU, a big equipment manufacturer and a conservative voice within an African regulator. When I see this kind of alliance, something comes over me and I start to feel that if they are against it, there must be merit in the idea. So please tell me if I’m wrong….

Professor H.Nwana, Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (a Cameroonian who was formerly responsible for the UK regulator OFCOM’s roll-out of TVWS) says:”Economic regulation mandates you look at all trials in a way that will provide broadband capacity. Access and affordability must be at the top of your mind.” Once 4G spectrum is available, it will only reach a certain percentage of the population, the addressable commercial audience:”There is a need for satellite and TVWS in rural areas. In terms of the tools – satellite, 4G, TVWS – a regulator needs all of them.”

“The sheer scale of Africa and its low population density means that you need a different spectrum policy for Africa and that addresses these kinds of realities. In 10 years time, we want dynamic access (using things like TVWS) to be the norm rather than the exception.”
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Digital Content Africa Z-13: Ghanaian online platform Reel African announces the launch of first viewer votes feature film competition with cash prize

Digital Content Africa Z – 11 Soon Come: Digital advertising has yet to catch up with online content use levels

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Videos interviews to watch:
Alan Knott-Craig Jr on how Project Isizwe brings Internet to low-income cties in Africa

Pierre van der Hoven on the launch of a low bandwidth mobile streaming service

Eric Osiakwan, co-founder Angel Fair on angel investing in Africa

Davis Weddi on why and how social media is gathering momentum in Uganda and the shift to smartphones

Bacely YoroBi on his Socialspot wi-fi hot-spot start-up for Cote d'Ivoire

Paul Bomani on the growth of social media in Tanzania and how clients use it for social engagement

Hafiz and Nadeem Juma, AIM Group, discuss digital content in Tanzania

Ram Sugulla, Spice VAS Africa, explains Nigeria's mobile content market

What will Africans Pay for Online Content? - A Discussion at DISCOP 2013

Marie Lora Mungai, Buni TV on how to make a success of African online content

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