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TV white space connectivity gains ground in South Africa

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 01 Jun 2021

Some KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) communities have become the latest to gain affordable and reliable broadband access by means of television white space (TVWS) technology.

The traditional area of KwaXolo and township of Gamalakhe, which are located in Ray Nkonyeni Municipality in the KZN province, have deployed Internet services using TVWS technology.

This after the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Old Mutual Foundation and the office of the KZN premier, launched the “AdNotes Rural TVWS Network” project in that province.

Spearheaded by Port Shepstone-based Internet services provider AdNotes, the TVWS project is funded by the UNDP and implemented by the CSIR. Old Mutual Foundation provided funding to establish the AdNotes core network, to build 10 public WiFi hotspots in Gamalakhe Township, and traditional authority areas KwaXolo and KwaMavundla.

According to a statement, the main objective of the project is to implement wireless network infrastructure to provide affordable broadband Internet connectivity to the neediest communities around the country.

Furthermore, the newly completed network aims to put those KZN communities at the forefront of digital advancement and fourth industrial revolution solutions, it states.

AdNotes CEO Nathi Mbele comments: “It is through UNDP that we were able to set up our business that enabled us to have access to the low-cost Internet network.”

UNDP’s Dr Ayodele Odusola adds: “We shouldn't be carried away by the challenges that came with COVID-19; there are so many opportunities that came with the pandemic. This initiative is one of those opportunities that enable people from rural areas to have access to low-cost Internet. Access to ICT is a way to expose our people to global development tools.”

Commenting on the company’s involvement with the project, Fikile Kuhlase, head of Old Mutual Foundation and Social Investment, says: “Old Mutual is exceptionally proud of this partnership with AdNotes because it enables us to practically live our purpose of championing mutually positive futures every day.

“Creating a culture of transformation and empowerment has been a key focus since our listing and critical to our ‘Truly Mutual CARES Strategy’. It is from this platform that the Old Mutual Foundation strives to make a positive impact by addressing three main societal challenges: high unemployment, inequality and poverty.”

The rise of TVWS

Television white spaces use idle broadcast spectrum on a secondary basis to bring broadband connectivity. This type of technology is considered a cost-effective solution to providing much-needed affordable Internet connectivity to underserved communities.

Around the world, many TVWS projects for commercial applications are operational, delivering connectivity to those in areas that are difficult to reach.

In Africa, the commercial deployment of this technology has been a topic of much contention, with the continent often facing criticism from advocates of TVWS frequencies for under-utilising the technology that can improve Internet access on the continent.

In the case of SA, the country has made some efforts in the use of this technology for broadband access, with telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) publishing the final regulations on the use of TVWS in 2018.

In the past, companies such as Google, Microsoft and the CSIR have led successful TV white spaces trials.

To further evaluate the viability of TVWS in SA, in 2019, the US Trade and Development Agency launched another TV white space project.

The consortium carrying out the pilot project was led by US-based firm Adaptrum. It also included the Wireless Access Providers Association, Microsoft, the International Data Corporation of Framingham in Massachusetts, as well as free WiFi advocate Project Isizwe.

In May 2020, the CSIR partnered with the Technology Innovation Agency to enable local Internet service providers to deploy television white space networks, through the use of the Secondary Geo-Location Spectrum Database (S-GLSD) platform.

The S-GLSD is a spectrum management tool developed by the CSIR to efficiently allocate the amount of usable spectrum, and enables Internet service providers to deploy TVWS broadband networks rapidly on a geo-location basis, to underserved communities.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, there is an increased focus on the socio-economic benefits of broadband.

As a result, ICASA allowed several SMMEs to deploy the TVWS networks for broadband Internet services, in order to mitigate potential data service congestion by the mobile network operators.

One of those companies assigned TV white space spectrum was Morai Solutions, which planned to deliver connectivity to the Eastern Cape, starting with Mthatha and the surrounding rural communities in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Local Municipality of the OR Tambo District Municipality.

Furthermore, local broadband technology solutions provider Indigo Broadband last year announced it was working with ICASA and the CSIR to drive pre-commercial TVWS projects in SA.