Africa's great "white spaces": tech's new frontier

Reuters

* New technology brings Internet via TV spectrum

* Africa the world's greatest untapped Internet market

* Microsoft, Google running tests in three African countries

* Microsoft in talks with 10 more countries for trials

* White spaces cheap and easy in both rural, urban settings

By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura

CAPE TOWN, Nov 10 (Reuters) - At Cape Town's ElswoodSecondary School, even the metal grills welded into its wallsdid not deter burglars from ripping out the copper cables thatdelivered Internet to the students of this tough neighbourhood.

But Elswood's pupils were saved by alternative technology -free wireless connection via unused parts of the TV spectrumknown as white space. It's being provided by a consortium led byGoogle as part of a wider trial. Elsewhere in thecountry Microsoft is operating similar pilots. Both areracing to fine tune a technology that could ultimately bringcheap broadband to the entire continent.

"Using white spaces will definitely be a more cost effectiveway to take Internet to the masses," said Spiwe Chireka, ananalyst at research firm IDC.

Africa is the world's last major untapped market forInternet access. Only 16 percent of its billion people use theInternet - half the penetration rate of Asia, according to theInternational Telecommunication Union.

Most Africans who can access the Internet do so via mobilephones because few have the landlines that have been the meansof connecting in Western countries. This has pushed broadbandusage to 11 percent this year from just 2 percent in 2010. Butmobile phone companies are reluctant to build costly masts andnetworks in remote rural areas - meaning hundreds of millions ofAfricans have little prospect of ever going online.

Google and Microsoft are chasing this massive new market,aiming to provide white space Internet access to rural swatheswith no coverage and in megacities where overcrowding and builtup areas can mean frustratingly poor phone reception.

Africa's thinly populated airwaves - Zimbabwe, for instance,has only one TV station - make it ideal for this technologybecause of the abundance of available spectrum. Microsoft isrunning pilot schemes in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa withthe aim of launching commercial projects thereafter. Google issponsoring trials in schools, including Elswood, across SouthAfrica.

While for both firms the logic of developing cheaper ways toaccess new customers is clear, the incentive for governments isalso compelling. World Bank research shows that a 10 percentincrease in broadband penetration can result in an extra 1.4percentage points of annual economic growth.

"This is really welcome," said Patrick Muinda, a spokesmanat Uganda's education ministry. "We need as much bandwidth as wecan get. More children are being taught computer studies as asubject and more computers are being purchased for use one-learning platforms. This would just hasten that process."

HOW IT WORKS

Television networks leave idle gaps between channels inorder to protect themselves from interference from othernetworks. The technology uses these "white spaces" to transmitand receive wireless data signals.

The adapted TV radio waves can travel up to a 10-kilometreradius, making them ideal for connecting off-grid villages. Theypenetrate walls better than mobile signals. And they're cheap toprovide: building a white spaces mast costs a tenth of theamount needed for a normal telecoms base station, said ArnoHart, project manager for the Cape Town white spaces trial beingfunded by Google.

"It's a great medium for ... wifi hotspots anywhere, so thatany population or demographic profile can have access to goodaffordable Internet," Hart said.

Local Internet service providers are helping: In TanzaniaMicrosoft has partnered with UhuruOne to provide connection tostudents at the University of Dar es Salaam. In January theproject will be expanded to four universities, giving more than72,000 students broadband access for $5 a month.

In Kenya, Indigo Telecom and the United States Agency forInternational Development are working with Microsoft to providewireless broadband to rural schools, a health clinic andgovernment office in remote areas of the Rift Valley province.

Indigo is currently providing free Internet to schools butplans to charge those living in the surrounding community $1.50per month for connectivity in future. It has provided theinfrastructure - fibre, masts and radios - while Microsoftsupplies the software and applications.

"We've started in areas that economically are not viable formobile phone companies to start in," said Indigo's chairmanPeter Henderson. "The strength of our operation is low cost ofconnectivity that lends itself to the areas that previouslywould digitally have been forgotten."

Vodacom, South Africa's biggest mobile phonecompany, said it was following the technology closely.

"It's an interesting initiative. At this stage it's notclear how it will be managed from a regulatory perspective, soit's difficult to speculate on how it may impact the overallprovision of connectivity," spokesman Richard Boorman said.

REGULATORS WATCH

Governments have largely welcomed the technology though someofficials have expressed reservations about whether it couldaffect or cross into bandwidth reserved for the military,emergency services and air traffic control.

African regulators are also watching closely to allayconcerns that broadcasters could be affected by interference,said Whitney Cubbison, communications director for Microsoft'sAfrica initiatives.

One country, which Microsoft declined to name, has warnedthat the process to change its regulations could take anothercouple of years.

Google's Cape Town trial is backed by the South Africanregulator, which is using the test case as the basis of futureregulation, and has said Google can continue the project pastits original September end-date.

Regulators in Malawi and Senegal, countries with only ahandful of broadcasters and plenty of available spectrum, havealso expressed keen interest in the technology, Google said.

Microsoft says it is in talks with 10 more Africangovernments to start trials but will not say which ones or howmuch the tests will cost.

"At this point, we feel there is ample proof that whitespace radios can coexist with incumbent licensees without anyrisk of interference," Cubbison said.

Back in Cape Town, schools participating in the trials hopeeverything works out. They are keen to hang on to their new,faster and more reliant Internet.

"We don't mind paying for it because it works for us," saidPaul Haupt, head of IT at The Settlers High School, a moreaffluent school in the Cape Town trial. "We've gotten used to agood service."

Tyler Jacobs, an Elswood 10th grader working on his homeworkduring a break in a packed computer room, summed it up: "Itmakes life so much easier." (Editing by Sophie Walker)

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