Africa and TV White Spaces: The ghosts in the machine could provide additional spectrum at low cost

Top Story

This week saw a workshop on TV White Spaces sponsored by APC, the Open Spectrum Alliance of South Africa, the Wireless Access Providers Association in South Africa and Google Africa take place in Johannesburg. White spaces technology promises what one regulatory contributor dubbed the nirvana of more efficient spectrum use and the possibility of significantly lower costs to deliver it to the customer. Russell Southwood seeks to explain what TV White Spaces are and how they can be used to deliver wider wireless access.

As Steve Song, CEO, The Village Telco explained it, TV White Spaces exist because in the old days analog television transmitters needed to “shout” because TV’s were less good at picking up the signal. As a result, unused “guard bands” were created between transmission channels to ensure that there was no signal interference between different broadcasts.

Until recently, spectrum had a finite capacity and like any finite resource, this both tended to both drive the price up and in many ways act against active competition. With the new TV White Spaces technology, the opportunity exists for additional spectrum to be bought into use and at what one participant suggested might be as much as “one tenth of the cost.”

Now whether it’s actually that figure remains to be proven but Africa needs as many things that will lower local bandwidth delivery to enable the widest use to create a critical mass of users. And nowhere are these needs more pressing than in poorer urban and rural areas.

In broad terms, there are two ways of delivering spectrum use in the TV White Spaces. Either you use cognitive radio that senses which radio bands are not in use and switches the signal when they start being used again. Or there is a central geo-location database against which the device checks for free spectrum. All of this is invisible to the user and will not require special customer equipment but takes advantage of the already considerable Wi-Fi user ecology. However, it will require some investment from operators. These delivery mechanisms are sometimes described as “Super Wi-Fi”.

The example applications include: rural broadband, campus networks, cellular offloading, home networks and Smart Grid Applications. From this menu, Africa needs all the help it can get to deliver rural broadband and operators are already needing help in offloading data traffic from their congested networks.

The technology is at the testing rather than roll-out stage. Cognitive radio has been tested in the USA and run into extensive opposition from broadcasters. In the UK, the approach, according to Professor H. Nwana (a Cameroonian by background) of Ofcom is to start with Geo-Location databases but to open up to cognitive radio when the technology is agreed. There are two pilots in the UK, one in Cambridge (which Microsoft is involved in) and the other in Scotland.

The latter is run on the Isle of Bute by Malcolm Brew who used to run Bushnet in East Africa and was covered previously in Balancing Act: Microsoft recently demonstrated the geo-location database technology at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi and Paul Mitchell from Microsoft who is involved in the pilot in Cambridge presented at the workshop..

As Professor Nwana, Ofcom put it:”The nirvana of dynamic spectrum regulation should be something all regulators should aspire order to drive up spectrum efficiciency.” This is probably something the Ghanaian Minister Minister of Communications Haruna Iddrisu and the regulator would say “amen” to (see Telecom News below) as they struggle like many policy-makers with unused spectrum issues.

Neil Ahlsten, Business Development Manager – Sub-Saharan Africa, Google said it would be interested in piloting the introduction of TV White Spaces technology, particularly in South Africa. In the regulatory panel, with both current and former representatives from Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, all those present spoke of being interested in running pilots.

As Chair of that session, I pressed them to say who would be responsible for then using the technology if it proved itself in the rural context: the existing operators or new, local operators? Everyone on the panel (which included the D-G of INCM, Americo Muchanga; Dumisana Ngwenya, ICASA, Ernest Ndukwe, formerly of NCC, and Alice Munyua, formerly of CCK) found it easy to envisage giving data licences.

But I pressed them about voice as this was the current main need in uncovered rural areas. There was some hesitation but there was some discussion about creating an ecology of smaller operators who might interconnect with larger players. Steve Song also told us that the Village Telco had an American investor called Investor Development and that it would be focusing sales of its Wi-Fi mesh device (the mesh potato) on small operators like cyber-cafes.

Google is particularly interested in lowering the current practical and market barriers to access and Ahlsten described a pilot it is conducting with Wananchi in Kenya at The Junction shopping mall branded Wazi. The aim is to create seamless, cheap roaming Wi-Fi so that the user can access bandwidth without needing to sign up to multiple providers. The hot-spot bandwidth can be delivered by all ISPs and mobile operators with a Wi-Fi roaming exchange that deals with the customer and wholesale billing.

The broader backdrop for the discussion of using TV White Spaces is the digital transition in broadcasting which promises to lead to a “digital dividend.” But all too rarely do telcos and broadcasters sit in the same room so telco people tend to assume that whatever dividend will be generated will be their’s to do mobile broadband with. The broadcasting licensing cycle until this point has been relatively infrequent so African broadcasters have not yet got their heads around these issues.

The majority of African countries have barely started on the transition process and even South Africa – which likes to see itself as a leader in these things – is already lagging badly behind its agreed timetable. So the digital dividend is unlikely to be around the corner for most countries until they start to pull their policy fingers out. The broadcasters’ main fear is loss of spectrum opportunities: the new digital compression offers multiple channels but there are few that have thought through in business terms what they would do with them.

The lack of dialogue is often exacerbated by regulatory “silos”. Sometimes regulators are converged (covering both broadcast and telecoms) but often telecoms regulators handle spectrum management whilst a separate regulator issues broadcast licences. It is rare for broadcasters to sit in the same room as telcos to discuss these issues and although there were only a couple of broadcasters in the room at the workshop, this was one of those rare occasions where it happened.
One of these broadcasters thought TV White Spaces was a “cool” idea but was concerned to see the technical problems fully worked through.

Africa already has a track-record for policy and regulatory innovation: Celtel’s One Network roaming across borders; open access structures for international, cross-border and national fibre; the Kenya open access LTE consortium network; and last but not least, the light-touch regulation that made a success of M-Pesa. This is another opportunity for Africa to be at forefront of trialing a technology that innovates in policy and regulatory terms. It can assist rural-roll-out; it can lower the cost of local delivery; and provide a new route for data offset for mobile operators. What’s not to like?

This week on the BalancingActAfrica You Tube channel:


Richard Bell, CEO, Wananchi Group in Kenya on international fibre connectivity, local TV content for its Zuku bouquet and financing its vision:

Kamal Budhabbatti, Craft Silicon on its banking products and m-money payment product ELMA

Robert Aouad, CEO Isocel Benin on opening a carrier-neutral data centre in Benin

Arun Nagar, CEO, Spice VAS Africa on launching its African platforms and live streaming

Lance Dickerson, CEO, TIA Telecom on optimising African mobile networks

And finally, one from the archive. Herman Heunis on social networking with MXit in Africa before he sold the company to Vodacom

Want up-to-the-minute breaking news? Balancing Act's Twitter feed provides a combination of breaking news for telecoms, Internet and broadcast in Africa, direct tweets from countries visited and access to the occasional rumours circulating. You can follow us on: