TV white space to unlock next frontier of SA connectivity

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 14 Nov 2022

Like WiFi, television white space (TVWS) will be the next big technology to provide ubiquitous connectivity in South Africa.

This is according to Dr Luzango Mfupe, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) principal researcher and TVWS project lead, speaking to ITWeb on the sidelines of the recent eighth CSIR Biennial Conference.

TV white space refers to radio frequencies occupied by analogue TV broadcast services. This type of technology is considered a cost-effective solution to providing much-needed affordable internet connectivity to underserved communities.

The CSIR has engaged in research to find possible solutions to address the lack of connectivity, particularly for citizens in rural and township areas. Key to this is research on TVWS and deployment of this technology.

According to Mfupe, SA has more than 95% mobile connectivity in various forms like 3G and 4G, and up to 100% in terms of 2G. However, only 1% of the country’s households have fixed broadband connectivity versus 14% in urban areas.

This, he said, shows many in the country are not connected. “We might think we are connected because we have cellphones, but we don’t have internet. A lot of people have mobile phones, but for stable internet, you need fixed internet at home.”

An overview of the digital infrastructure gap shows most of the areas are reached by fibre; however, most of the areas close to fibre are urban areas, he revealed.

“From our research perspective, we understand that wireless communication is one of the best forms that can allow us to connect affordably.”

Given this, Mfupe hopes to see TVWS become the next wave that will connect citizens to the internet in an affordable manner, as it is available almost everywhere.

“In almost 80% to 90% of the land area, you’ll find free channels in the TV broadcasting band that can be used for broadband. This is because they are not being used at that particular time by the broadcasters.”

The researcher said there’s been some uptake of TVWS, with Port Shepstone-based internet service provider AdNotes key among the players using this technology to provide connectivity in rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

“There are even industry players − for example, from the Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA) − who are using TV white space.

“We really believe TVWS will be the next big thing – just like the wave of WiFi is. When WiFi started, it was just simple communication, but the 802.11 family has now grown. TV white space will grow just like that and the good thing about this kind of technology is that it uses software-defined radio.

“These are radios which allow one to use different bands available using dynamic spectrum access technique. The flexibilities in the technique itself and the kind of gadgets that are using the technique allow a lot of room to players to manoeuvre and have sustainability.

“Today, we are talking TV white space and the regulator ICASA is already looking to dynamic spectrum access beyond TV white space.”

Mfupe pointed out that studies such as that done by the World Bank indicate that developing countries like SA can grow their GDP by approximately 2.3%, if they penetrate their communities or countries with at least 10% affordable broadband.

Dr Luzango Mfupe, CSIR principal researcher and TVWS project lead.
Dr Luzango Mfupe, CSIR principal researcher and TVWS project lead.

According to Mfupe, TVWS technology has been slowly emerging, due to the regulatory issues that have been ironed out.

In 2017, ICASA published a paper about TVWS technology and the regulations were published in 2018. Pre-commercial trials were conducted by various stakeholders, including WAPA, to see the viability and commercial side of things.

Last year, the regulations of 2018 came into force to allow commercial deployment of TVWS in the country, he noted.

“With the certainty in the market – the regulations are there – we are seeing businesses and stakeholders show interest…and start rolling out because all the regulatory hurdles have since been eliminated.”

He believes there is a sustainable future for TVWS. “TV white space is the first wave of dynamic spectrum access − the future is good and I believe the cost of equipment will continue to go down.

“Initially, the cost was high because of the regulatory issues. When there’s regulatory uncertainty, you can’t produce a lot of equipment because who is going to buy it when there’s no regulation?

“When the regulation is in place, then you’ll be confident that people will buy the equipment; then you can mass-produce and the cost of equipment will go down. Also, considering that we don’t have to buy spectrum in an auction like the way mobile operators buy, drives the cost of access down.”

Value chain

Mfupe indicated that in addition to driving ubiquitous connectivity, TVWS presents lots of business opportunities for small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs).

Referring to them as digital entrepreneurs, Mfupe said SMMEs don’t have to compete with the big telcos that can fork out R10 billion.

“The spectrum is there, the technology allows you to rollout, and the equipment comes at a fraction of the cost of an LTE base station, with larger coverage than the LTE deployment. There are a lot of benefits and the barriers of entry for SMMEs have been lowered to a level that a rural operator like AdNotes can also play in that space.

“Big operators can also use it, so it doesn’t mean MTN or Vodacom cannot use this technology. It allows for coverage in areas that maybe the big telcos could not cover with good speed.

“This is a growing industry; it’s still in its infancy. It’s a new industry, it’s not like mobile. It’s a hybrid of WiFi and you need to understand where you sit if you’re a digital entrepreneur. You can be at any of the levels: OEM, TVWS network operator or a data centre provider or content provider. So, we’re trying to build an entirely new industry ecosystem and we’d like our SMMEs, especially women and youth, to grab the opportunity.”

In terms of how SA compares to African counterparts when it comes to deploying TVWS, Mfupe says the country has “won” the race, mainly because of organisations like the CSIR, ICASA and some industry players.

“South Africa has become the first African country to have regulations to develop the technology, which allows operators to use that spectrum. I can say we are ahead…there’s no other country in Africa that can compete with us on this.”