Rural roll-out, White Spaces and Wi-Fi: Scottish Isles meets Africa on the same road to providing service to scattered populations

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Getting voice and data to Africa’s remaining un-served citizens will be a tough nut to crack. Some mobile operators are already saying that 10-15% of their existing base stations lose money. The dual challenge of finding cost-effective technologies to reach scattered populations and a business model that will finance them seem daunting. Russell Southwood talks to former Kenyan resident Malcolm Brew about possible solutions from halfway across the world in a windy island off the Scottish mainland.

There are weeks when all sorts of things just collide and start to make sense. This week it was the unlikely combination of a Scotsman, White Spaces and African rural roll-out. Former Bushnet Technical Director Malcolm Brew who used to roll-out rural networks in Uganda returned to his family home in the Isle of Bute in the Scottish Highlands and Islands after over 20 years away. The Highlands and Islands have extremely poor data and voice coverage because of low population density: there are less than 3.7 people per square mile. There is little chance of fibre or LTE, indeed mobile coverage is also very limited as the terrain is very hilly.

Brew started to investigate the problem and began to cast about for solutions: “I spent a lot of time at Strathclyde University with clever RF engineers using modified WiFi in HF in White Spaces. I wanted to deliver on the rural commitment.” A consortium of different partners including Brew and Professor Bob Stewart and others at Strathclyde University’s Centre for White Space Communications have set up a co-operative called Hopscotch to deliver voice and date to Bute and further afield: :”We want to export the tech to the rest of Scotland”.

It has set up a demonstration test network with a Wi-Fi link from a mountain on the mainland across to Bute. It uses standalone, low power, self-powered masts: these use mainly wind but the aim is to create a wind/solar hybrid. It is a vertical axis wind turbine and the masts have a NiCAD battery back-up, giving 96 hours standby power. The “base station” as they call it, has a sub 20W power requirement. As the project’s promoters say:”It’s ultra light, ultra small and ultra cheap.”

The initial test network was on 5GHz in bands B and C giving a 0.5 Gbps link and it has been encouraged by UK regulator Ofcom which has granted them a “light spectrum licence” as a testbed facility. The pilot has enabled the team to develop comprehensive coverage plans backed by empirical measurements and modeling tools.

 “The challenge (both for Bute and Africa) is in the business model and how to make things work financially in the ‘not-spots’. ARPUs can only go so low on the GSM/Pay-As-You-Go model, especially with mainstream vendors. You’re going to have high prices. The users won’t be able to get to the Internet unless they have money on it. It’s not the right way to do it. The Internet should be open and your right as a citizen. You become a stakeholder in a co-op and can take a longer-term view financially. It can build up a relationship with you and understand the services you want. It can help you build your business so that you can afford the services in the future.” 

The plan is to build a 4-hop network and on the Island of Bute they have villages where there are users who want to be connected: “You need to place base stations in the right place to overcome geography. You can build up very long, high-capacity links.”

The problem for mobile operators is that the CAPEX and OPEX for rolling out and using GSM base stations just won’t work at the kind of population densities found in the Highlands and Islands. Sound familiar? Yes, because it describes large swathes of rural Africa. However, with the kind of low cost, low energy base stations being produced by Range Networks, it will be possible to use IP to deliver some GSM access into these remote areas:“We’re not a mobile operator but we could create the access. We could get the GSM signal to where we need it as a community and make money on the interconnect.”

By itself, the existing test network would be an interesting approach for Africa but the potentially revolutionary moment is the arrival of White Spaces spectrum as part of the dividend from the transition to digital in broadcasting: broadcast signals will then be able to be much more compressed and this will free up spectrum.

In the UK, Ofcom is auctioning 4G spectrum for LTE use but alongside this “big boys” process, it will be offering four times as much spectrum just below it on the range for community use in places like the Highlands and Islands.

Ofcom in its consultation wrote:” Of course, not all innovative ideas are successful and alongside WiFi and BlueTooth sit some initiatives that have yet to gain any traction, such as ultra-wideband (UWB). Our role however is to enable as many new ideas to be tried as possible so that the market and consumers can determine which should succeed, without trying to pre-judge which will be the most successful”. The FCC in the USA is also making broadly similar proposals.

So what are the White Spaces? National and international bodies assign different frequencies for specific uses, and in most cases license the rights to broadcast over these frequencies. This frequency allocation process creates a spectrum plan, which for technical reasons assigns white space between used radio bands or channels to avoid interference. In this case, while the frequencies are unused, they have been specifically assigned for a purpose, such as a guard band. Most commonly however, these white spaces exist naturally between used channels, since assigning nearby transmissions to immediately adjacent channels will cause destructive interference to both. In addition to white space assigned for technical reasons, there is also unused radio spectrum which has either never been used, or is becoming free as a result of the digital transition.

Ofcom’s aim is to allow these White Spaces to be used for community uses. The way of delivering this spectrum is quite complicated. It requires the devices used to act as slaves to a master database of frequencies that will assign them usable frequencies. And this is where the research expertise of the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for White Space Communications comes in. Too complicated for Africa? No, because once the technology is there it will be possible to use it anywhere. But why doesn’t a forward-thinking Africa regulator get involved in the development process by issuing a testbed licence?

One of the elements that may add viability to the rural business model is the delivery of digital radio and TV signals. Another of Hopscotch’s partners is BBC Research: “The BBC are the wizards of this spectrum." A rural roll-out which combines voice, data, radio and TV begins to offer things that people on a range of income levels will be interested in.

The UK Government has a broadband roll-out strategy called Broadband Delivery UK which it has put £530 million behind it.

So what are things that Africa can learn from this example to help rural roll-out:

1.    There needs to be a focus on getting the costs right down. There may be other technologies but Wi-Fi is cheap and proven. Shaped signals can provide transmission links. Cheap, hybrid wind/solar masts exist that have extremely small footprints. Wi-Fi mesh solutions like those of Village Voice provide ports that allow cheap, existing phones to be plugged in and used. Wi-Fi CPEs are extremely cheap.

2.    African regulators need to get encourage these kinds of developments by offering testbed licences to those developing the technologies that will deliver cheaper CAPEX and OPEX. Many of the regions that need serving have “quiet” spectrum because no operator is anywhere within a great distance of them. This “quiet” spectrum can be used to develop both voice and data solutions. In the mid-term, African regulators need to get on board with White Spaces and get ready to use this important part of the dividend from the digital transition in broadcasting. (which they also need to encourage to move along much more quickly)

3.     In business model terms, there are two broad approaches: either locally based, micro-businesses or the existing major operators providing branded but outsourced coverage. The best approach would be to allow both things to happen to see what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. However, there must be an understanding that if mobile operators don’t want to provide coverage in these areas, then they have to provide realistic interconnection arrangements to those who will. The choice for the mobile operators is clear: their existing cost base in terms of staff and equipment will not deliver coverage in these places. Therefore they need to get behind encouraging an ecosystem of local providers who will.

4.    There are considerable attractions to delivering a package of services that have attractions for a wide range of people and organizations. It may not be immediately possible but having the delivery of mobile voice, data, radio and TV as an objective adds weight to the need for this kind of roll-out.

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