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Using Africa's Unexplored "White Space" to Boost Internet Penetration

09 July, 2014

Source: ICT Africa

Kihara Kimachia:

Don't let the seemingly technical title scare you from reading the rest of this article. If you have never heard the term before, "White Space" can sound like something out of a sci-fi movie. But, "White Space" is simply another term for unused space…specifically, unused frequencies in the radio spectrum.

National and international organizations assign frequencies and license broadcasters (TV, Radio and others) to use these frequencies. When frequencies are allocated, a buffer is created between the frequencies so that there is no interference between two broadcasters. This buffer is empty space and is technically referred to as "White Space". The ongoing switch-over from analog to digital television around the world is freeing up large areas in the radio spectrum because digital signals can be packed into adjacent channels, something that wasn't possible with analog.

Tech companies and service providers are now studying how to use this empty space in the clouds to boost Internet penetration. Google and Microsoft are currently chasing this new market. Both companies are piloting White Space technology geared at boosting Internet penetration in Africa. Most people on the continent access the Internet using mobile phones unlike Europe and North America where cable is the norm. Unfortunately, many mobile phone companies are not willing to set-up expensive communications masts in rural areas where there isn't much of a profit incentive. In South Africa, for example, there is hardly any connectivity in Limpopo, a rural province in northern South Africa. Microsoft carried initial testing of TV White Space technology in Limpopo, South Africa, Nanyuki, Kenya in 2013 and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Google has carried out trials in Cape Town, South Africa.

Rural areas in Africa are usually inhibited from wireless access because they are inaccessible and far from the local power grid. Cell phone towers are also hard to install or as mentioned before, there is no incentive for the telco. Fortunately, the stations needed to deliver White Space Internet can be powered with solar panels. Any excess electricity from these stations can be used to power schools and health centers in the area.

Another major advantage of using White Space technology to deliver Internet connectivity is the considerable distance that White Space can travel when compared to Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi offers connectivity at a maximum of 100 meters at best whereas White Space can connect clients ten kilometers away. This is a huge plus in place like Africa where huge areas are not covered by mobile phone networks, land lines and terrestrial fiber optic.

Connectivity is at a premium at the moment and the demand for Internet access is projected to skyrocket over the next decade as a result of more of the unconnected 3 billion people coming online and the effect of the Internet of Things where 50 billion devices are projected to be connected to the Internet by 2020. White space is an additional resource of bandwidth which does not rely on traditional mobile phone networks. It holds the potential to connect people and devices where Wi-Fi cannot reach and deliver moderately fast Internet in Africa at a fraction of the cost of terrestrial fiber infrastructure.


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