Google and Microsoft pitch TV White Spaces as a way to wring out more spectrum and beat the digital divide in rural areas

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Around 100 people have gathered this week in Dakar to attend an event jointly co-hosted by Google and Microsoft to look at how TV white Spaces and the technology that can use it will make a contribution to the continent’s access to cheaper Internet. Not since the heady days of African ISPs lobbying for international fibre bandwidth has there seemed to be such a head of steam around a particular issue. Russell Southwood looks at what’s promised and what might be delivered.

For all the rhetoric about Pan-African unity, the continent is a very divided place in terms of which people from which countries meet each other. Partly because this event was held in Senegal it has attracted an unusual mix of Anglophones and francophones. Overall, there were people from Google and Microsoft, ISPs, education bodies using Internet like the NRENs, regulators (both international and African), experts on the topic and vendors from the emerging TV White Spaces vendor sector.

I am used to Ministers in Africa arriving late so it was a pleasant surprise that Senegal’s Minister of Communications turned up absolutely on the dot and gave a short speech. He said the Government wanted to make the Internet available to all communities and that it was a “must have” thing. The digital economy must be a driving force for the whole economy.

(A sidebar: Senegal is grappling with putting together a strategy to reflect this priority. It is asking the difficult but vital question of how will all this translate into jobs? However, as one local familiar with these things observed, Senegal had tremendous potential digital potential five years ago but failed to translate this into actual results. The francophone delight in verbal rhetoric that is not connected with results hovers over the proceedings. The last Government gave subsidies to university students and one of the leading universities now has 80,000 students. How will these students get jobs in the digital economy?)

So what are TV White Spaces? When television was first invented, its transmission was less efficient than it is today so there needed to unused spectrum between signals which are known as “guard bands” to protect channels from interference from other channels.

Alongside TV White Spaces there is dynamic spectrum allocation technology. This can work in one of two ways: it either checks dynamically which spectrum is available before using it or checks against a database that updates itself. The thing about spectrum is that it is largely inefficiently used. Once sold, it is allocated and then used at different times of the day. Two speakers – Google’s Andy and South African regulator ICASA’s William Stucke – both highlighted how this leaves a significant pool of unused spectrum.

So the proposition is that rather than upset existing spectrum users, the TV White Spaces can be used to demonstrate how dynamic spectrum allocation works. Both Google and Microsoft have TV White Spaces trials in places as complex topographically and urban as Cape Town and as far from the city as villages in Kenya’s Rift Valley. We have covered these trials in previous issues.

All the evidence from the UK (where again we have covered the trial in the Scottish island of Bute) and the USA as well as from Africa indicate that things are working as promised. In terms of delivery and onward backhaul, the technology connects to the cheap and widely used Wi-Fi ecology. And to add to your catalogue of Open acronyms, there is now an OSD movement, Open Spectrum Data. The signal propagates efecctively so that it can overcome a high level of vegetation and go over modest bumps.

Several speakers – including University of Southampton’s Richard Thanki – highlighted how the spectrum used with Wi-Fi devices could deliver effective Machine-to-Machine (M2M, again for the acronym collectors) applications that could do things as diverse as track public transport, see whether vines are ripe or monitor electricity and water flows.

The test at Microsoft’s Redmond campus even had a waste bin that could tell you when it was full. No sign of them telling jokes or making the tea but perhaps that comes later. But what sounds sci-fi today has a funny habit of turning up as tomorrow’s application.

Some speakers like Richard Thanki questioned whether 4G technologies would actually be able to deliver access in cost-effective ways because of how expensive the technology and associated civil works actually are. In the business case session it became very clear that without much cheaper delivery methods that could keep bringing down the retail cost to the user, the Internet would remain something used by the urban middle classes and their offspring.

The dynamic spectrum equipment offers potentially cheaper equipment and operational costs that could deliver a business case for rural users and in urban areas offer cheaper roll-out to areas beyond the middle class suburbs.

In the business case session, Ellie Hagopian of Skyrove looked in some detail at the potential business models and made the point that current level of hot spots was tiny alongside the size of South Africa and the mobile operator services. The main cluster of models are around being a wireless ISP, a hot-spot provider and pre-paid operator, as well as offering wholesale backhaul.

However, how this all translates into the scale and critical mass remains an open question. Whilst it is great to have a wide range of small ISPs, without significant national coverage (and rural areas), you can find yourself only able to use your Wi-Fi service in a small number of places. What is needed is either a serious alternative insurgent challenger with the capital to make national coverage a reality or a seamless alliance between ISPs that allows you to move between independent hot-spots across a country.

In regulatory terms, the technology is on 12-month pilots in what seems to be a growing number of countries. For example, Malawi has done the background research to set up a pilot and is looking to move to the next stage: it discovered that in the area under examination it would easily be possible to achieve 200-300 mbps for lower power devices. William Stucke from ICASA (who spoke in a personal capacity) said that if all went well, there could be a licence framework in place as soon as the end of 2014.

In terms of the regulators present, there was a clear split between Anglophone regulators who seemed to want to move things forward as quickly as the system allowed and the Francophone regulators who wanted to study and evaluate and felt the need to adjust the “cadre juridique”.

But a Kenyan entrepreneur said there was a disagreement over it between the regulator CCK and the Ministry about what happens beyond the pilot. The key is obviously protecting the primary users, the broadcasters, and regulators having some direct power over the volume of the signal and the ability to turn it off if there was any continuous interference.

Stucke from ICASA reported that there had been no complaints from broadcasters so far in the trial area in Cape Town, which covers six channels. In licence terms he was also suggesting the equivalent of a fixed term “lease” with renewal terms.

There is a great deal more to say on the topic and we will return to it over the coming months. But what is clear is that TVWS offers Africa a significant advantage in terms of getting Internet access out to a wider range of people and offers the basis for building the new business models of the future.

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