Africa underutilising TV white spaces

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 11 Jun 2013

Though many African countries are showing interest in TV white space frequencies, the majority of countries are underutilising the technology.

This emerged at the TV White Spaces & Dynamic Spectrum Africa Forum, which took place in Dakar last week and was hosted by Google, Microsoft, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), AFRINIC and the Internet Society Senegal Chapter. The forum convened more than 100 people, including ICT regulators, Internet service providers, equipment manufacturers, academics and civil society organisations, all looking for innovative ways to improve Internet access on the continent.

In telecommunications, white spaces refer to frequencies allocated to a broadcasting service but not used locally. The forum heard that TV broadcasting and broadband can share the same radio spectrum to help address Africa's connectivity problems.

According to the APC, new wireless communication systems have recently emerged, which can detect interference and switch frequencies to unused wavebands, making much more efficient use of available radio spectrum.

Complete waste

Surveys presented at the forum indicate that large swathes of the lower-frequency bands allocated to broadcasting in Africa are almost completely unused. These wavebands, known as TV white spaces, can reach long distances and provide a low-cost solution for meeting Internet access needs for people living in remote and rural areas who are currently cut off from the digital revolution, says the APC.

Despite the growth of mobile services and broadband access in many parts of the continent, Internet access continues to lag, and last-mile access is one of the biggest challenges to increasing access in these regions, the association adds.

"What really impressed me about the forum was the sense of common cause among the participants to make better use of radio spectrum, and the excitement generated by the unearthing of so much unused spectrum on the continent," says Mike Jensen, APC's Internet access specialist.

"This has overturned the commonly held view that all radio spectrum is a scarce resource. The forum also provided a venue for showcasing real examples in Africa where more innovative use of our spectrum resources can meet some of the immediate connectivity needs in Africa, especially for rural areas. Aside from using these technologies in the TV frequencies, the model can also be used in other wavebands to make more efficient use of all our spectrum resources - a public good that needs to be exploited to the full in order to meet the needs of marginalised members of our societies."

Using its spectrum database, Google shared a visualisation of available white spaces in Senegal. There is more than 90MHz available in Dakar alone, and more across the country that could be used for broadband.

Trials in Kenya, Malawi, Singapore, SA, the UK and the US have demonstrated that broadband can co-exist with licensed spectrum holders and provide broadband services.

Local trials

In SA, Google, the eSchools Network, the Tertiary Education and Research Network of SA and the Wireless Access Providers' Association have led a TV white spaces trial to provide broadband to 10 schools in Cape Town. The Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research has shared initial results from the trial, which demonstrate that TV white spaces radios can operate without interfering with TV broadcasts.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) plans to use the trial outcomes to evaluate possible rules for use of TV white spaces.

According to Heink Kleynhans, chairman of the Wireless Access Providers' Association, white space capacity is waiting to be used in the market. He said it can help bring broadband services to many more South Africans over the next few years.

"The spectrum being referred to is the so-called white space between television channels on the VHF and UHF frequency bands - several hundred megahertz of sub-900MHz spectrum frequency ready to be put to good use by telecoms entrepreneurs. This precious resource is currently being wasted by virtue of the fact that it is underutilised," concludes Kleynhans.