Change the channel to rural broadband

Johannesburg, 18 Dec 2019
Read time 4min 10sec
Neil Jackson, Software Business Unit Manager: Advanced Technologies, Axiz
Neil Jackson, Software Business Unit Manager: Advanced Technologies, Axiz

South Africa enjoys extensive mobile broadband coverage. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)’s latest report shows that even rural areas have 3G coverage above 90%, and LTE coverage of between 55% and 90%.

But that coverage comes with severe constraints, particularly around cost and guaranteed performance. Despite the broad coverage and a glut of devices such as smartphones, internet penetration in South Africa still only accounts for about half the population. Adoption of even basic broadband still lags and falls furthest behind in the rural areas.

Fixed-line internet can provide the type of competitive costs and performance that inspire wider use of broadband. Yet to lay down fibre lines that can serve rural communities effectively is itself a significant cost barrier. Does that leave broadband as something only urban communities can enjoy? Not if the vision of TV Whitespace (TVWS) is realized.

Tuning into broadband

The idea of TVWS has been around for a few years, said Neil Jackson, Software Business Unit Manager: Advanced Technologies at Axiz:

“TVWS is a fairly new development. It began around 2008 when US regulators made unallocated tv frequencies available for public use. Since then, there have been numerous trials and more countries deregulating those spectrum bands.”

South Africa’s government has started joining this club - regulations for television whitespaces were gazetted in 2018, opening the doors to use TVWS equipment in the country. Pilot projects are underway to test the viability of the technology. But SA is not first in doing so - Kenya has been running TVWS trials since 2013 and recently scaled those efforts up.

But why is TVWS worth the attention and is it a real contender for broadband internet? The quickest way to explain TVWS is comparing it to wifi. Both use unlicensed spectrum to move data at high speeds. Wifi only works over very short distances of several metres, but the frequencies accessible to TVWS can travel dozens of kilometres. Suitably, the US’ FCC called it ‘Super Wifi’.

“You can send TVWS traffic through poor lines of sight. It can pass through trees and walls. If there are serious problems reaching people, such as a mountain, UHF bands can be used. The idea is that base stations connect the high-capacity beams, which are then spread from the base station to the surrounding public via wifi or fixed lines.”

The Kenyan trial uses wifi and sells affordable access to people through vouchers. It is in many respects similar to a mobile network experience, except the data prices are considerably lower than Kenya’s mobile networks offer.

Connecting South Africa

TVWS sounds like a very potent solution to connecting the remaining half of South Africans, so why hasn’t the technology flourished yet? As mentioned earlier, regulations were only gazetted last year for the exploitation of these spectrums. That opens the legal pipeline, but there are still other requirements such as constructing the base stations and testing potential business models.

The concept is also still relatively new and has needed time to develop, said Jackson:

“It’s only been a little more than a decade. So there is still a lot to work out, though we’ve already seen plenty of progress. The white space regulations are a big step forward, and there are already trials underways in parts of the country.”

Developing nations stand to gain much more from TVWS than saturated developed broadband markets. This is why so many trials have been taking place across Africa and inside South Africa, including the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal. Buy-in for the concept is much higher in developing nations, which is why local efforts to exploit and commercialise TVWS should be a top priority.

“We can connect rural areas, but we can also use TVWS to deliver a type of ‘frugal 5G’,” said Jackson. “It can connect sensor networks, government e-services, smart cities and greater parts of the digital economy. TVWS looks like a great fit for Africa’s large spaces. It’s pretty low risk because the spectrum is unlicensed. If there continues to be more trials and collaboration, we can start scaling efforts to become commercially serious.”

Africa is often associated with leapfrogging, something it has already done successfully once through mobile networks. Now the same opportunity remerged, only this time it means even more affordable broadband services that can connect everything rural, from towns to villages to clinics. Can TV White Space change the face of African broadband? It’s certainly worth finding out.

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