White Space — The Solution for Africa’s Internet Access Crisis?

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By Kate Voss

In the age of widespread internet, where free Wi-Fi is available anywhere from coffee shops to libraries, Africa is undoubtedly lacking in regards to affordable and widespread access to the internet. In 2011, a UN commission stated that access to broadband internet is a basic human right, but Africa still stands as the world’s last major untapped market for internet.  According to Internet World Stats, the current internet penetration in North America is at a 78.6 percent, Europe at 63.2 percent and Africa at 15.6 percent.

White space broadband — a technology that makes use of the unused channels between TV broadcast signals left open to protect interference between multiple networks — might just be the solution Africa needs to solve its internet access crisis. Wireless broadband internet is able to utilize these “white spaces” in order to transmit data and provide remote regions, where traditional cable is expensive and hard to lay, providing anyone with the opportunity to access high speed internet.

A white space device (WSD) is designed to detect the unused areas of airwaves and utilize them to transmit signals for Internet connectivity. Due to the low frequency of the adapted white space radio waves, signals can travel up to a 10-kilometer radius, enabling them to reach remote areas. White space is not only cheap to provide, since it operates on an already existing structure, it also penetrates walls and has the ability to bend around physical obstructions (like trees, or better yet, mountains) far better than mobile signals can. These low-frequency signals are the reason that single, large TV transmitters can broadcast a signal to millions of residential homes, versus cell phone signals or cellular radio, which need towers every few miles.

 

Already, there have been various proposals, such as IEEE 802.11af that advocate using white spaces to provide and improve the availability of wireless broadband Internet access, and are working to define standards for future spectrum sharing. Powerhouse companies Google and Microsoft, who have been long-term supporters of white space usage, have already started trials in Kenya, Cape Town and Tanzania in hopes of lessening the digital divide and creating new opportunities for education, healthcare, commerce, and government services in Africa and other underdeveloped countries.

Africa currently heavily relies on mobile phones to access the internet, but only the wealthy can afford such devices, and mobile phone companies are hesitant to build expensive networks in remote areas. Satellite internet was once the only option for connecting rural communities, but now, if white space technology proves effective, African countries could have access to affordable broadband access that requires less set-up, runs faster, and costs less.

 

Google is already claiming that their white space trial, which began in March and implemented white space Wi-Fi in ten schools in Cape Town, has had positive results. The company announced that, “After six months, the trial has been a success. The participating schools, which previously had slow or unreliable Internet connections, experienced high-speed broadband access for the first time. Teachers were able to use videos in their lesson plans, make Skype calls to other schools, update school websites, and send regular email updates to parents. Students could use educational videos for research. Because the service was better and faster, teachers and learners used the Web to enrich the classroom experience.”

In addition to the Google white space trials in Cape Town, Microsoft launched a white space pilot in rural Limpopo. Microsoft hopes to prove that white space technology can be used to meet the South African government’s goal of providing low-cost internet access to 80 percent of South Africans by 2020. The company worked with the University of Limpopo as the hub for a white space network that would provide internet access to nearby schools in local communities, and also provided each school with Windows tablets, projectors, laptops and solar-panel chargers.

Microsoft previously worked with Tanzania and Kenya, and those trials proved that white space technology is an excellent solution for internet access in rural areas. As of today, the Kenyan government reportedly is delivering bandwidth speeds up to 16mbit/s to communities which previously lacked internet access and electricity. Likewise, in Google’s South African white space trial, the goal was to ensure that white space would not interfere with broadcast channels and that, too, was also successful.

World Bank research shows that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration can result in an extra 1.4 percentage points of annual economic growth, but there are further benefits if Google and Microsoft’s tests prove successful. As the companies are working to perfect white space technology, there’s no doubt that any amount of increased internet access will help improve education by providing more resources and learning opportunities, strengthen the government by allowing for more interaction, and give Africans their basic human right — access to the internet.

 

About the author:

Kate Voss is a tech blogger from Chicago focused on covering new technology including electric vehicles and white space.