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New TV white space pilot under way in SA

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In SA, 56.9% of households access the Internet using mobile devices.
In SA, 56.9% of households access the Internet using mobile devices.

The US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) is looking to improve Internet access in the rural and semi-rural parts of South Africa, through a pilot project that will utilise TV white space (TVWS) technologies.

Many TVWS projects for commercial applications are operational around the world to deliver connectivity to those in areas that are difficult to reach.

African nations, however, have over the years been criticised by advocates of TVWS frequencies for under-utilising the technology that can improve Internet access on the continent.

In SA, where over 50% of the population is connected to the Internet, with 31.18 million active Internet users, private and government research institutions have led successful TV white spaces trials.

In another step to evaluate the viability of TVWS in the Southern African nation, USTDA announced yesterday it has awarded a grant to the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) to trial a TVWS networks project to help bridge the digital divide in the country.

The grant was signed by Hala Rharrit, political and economic chief for the US Consulate General in Durban, on behalf of USTDA, along with WAPA executive committee member, Paul Colmer.

“This grant demonstrates USTDA’s continuing commitment to developing quality and affordable ICT infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Thomas Hardy, USTDA’s acting director. “Through our Access Africa initiative, USTDA is connecting our African partners with innovative US suppliers of technology ideally suited for the local environment.”

Partnership-driven

Television white spaces refer to unused frequencies in the wireless spectrum between TV broadcasts that can be utilised to provide broadband. This will increase once SA finally migrates from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

In addition, TV white space technologies provide an alternative but complementary ecosystem to LTE technologies and inexpensively deliver broadband.

According to the USTDA,the consortium carrying out the pilot will be led by Adaptrum, a wireless broadband solutions provider based in San Jose, California.

Other partners include WAPA, Microsoft, the International Data Corporation (IDC) of Framingham in Massachusetts, as well as free WiFi advocate Project Isizwe.

Project Isizwe CEO Dudu Mkhwanazi tells ITWeb that WAPA will roll out a USTDA grant-funded TVWS plan in KwaZulu-Natal to test the "bankable" feasibility of a TV white space connectivity project.

Mkhwanazi explains: “This will be documented by the IDC in the form of a white paper that will allow members of WAPA who are considering TV white space as an enabler for rural connectivity to use the white paper as motivation or evidence when applying for funding.

“Project Isizwe's role has been of a project planner and partnership coordinator, in partnership with Adaptrum, Microsoft and WAPA, thus far. This project fits Isizwe's mission of providing sustainable Internet access within walking distance for South Africans in low-income communities.”

Colmer, pilot project lead, adds: “We are extremely pleased to partner with USTDA to evaluate the viability of TVWS in South Africa. The pilot will benefit our members and ultimately the communities they serve.

“This support from USTDA will be invaluable in bridging the digital divide, which is of critical importance to community upliftment.”

Haiyun Tang, CEO of Adaptrum, comments: “Since deploying the first TVWS system in Africa, Adaptrum has seen the huge potential of this technology to bring much-needed connectivity to under-served communities.

“With this pilot, which brings together local stakeholders as well as leading experts spanning technology and financing, we are aiming to build a sustainable business model to provide affordable broadband using TVWS across South Africa, which can be replicated over a large percentage of rural Africa.”

Notable successes

In the past, Google, Microsoft, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, as well as WAPA have led successful TV white spaces trials. Despite this, operational processes to enable commercial use of this technology have been non-existent.

In 2017, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) co-hosted the DSA Global Summit in Cape Town to discuss the progress SA is making in enabling affordable Internet through dynamic spectrum access.

Although commercial deployment of this TVWS technology is still unclear in SA, last year, ICASA published the final regulations on the use of TV white space networks for Internet access.

The country's regulatory authority said one of the purposes of the TVWS regulations is to support the uptake of affordable broadband services and access by the under-served.

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