US INTERNET and software giants Google and Microsoft see the unused spectrum that exists between TV broadcast channels, known as TV white spaces, as the unclaimed areas that could be used to roll out broadband access to rural regions in the most cost-effective manner.
Microsoft’s and Google’s representatives were lobbying on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2013 conference in Cape Town to free up the frequency spectrum from tight regulatory controls on the continent, which would help to develop cheap and reliable internet access across Africa.
Google teamed up with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the country’s regulator for that sector, and several other stakeholders to test the use of TV white spaces in February.
That test has connected 10 schools in the northern suburbs of Cape Town and seeks, among other objectives, to see if a database can help to control the dynamic relationship between broadcast and broadband signals.
Google South Africa country director Luke Mckend said the Cape Town test should help Icasa, the government and companies work out a strategy to roll out broadband in the cheapest and fastest way.
He is hoping that it will have a profound influence on the development of a broadband policy that the Department of Communications is preparing.
The economic importance of internet access was highlighted by a study completed by the World Bank in 2009 which found that for every 10% of a country’s population connected to the internet, 1.38% is added to its gross domestic product.
Despite the World Bank’s finding and various other studies, Africa remains one of the regions with the lowest internet penetration. Some studies have said that while Africa has 15% of the world’s population, it only has 6.2% of the world’s total internet users.
Part of the problem is that the rollout of expensive fixed and mobile (meaning cellular) telecommunications connectivity is limited and expensive. Added to that is the expense of the devices used to connect to the internet.
Countries have seen the auctioning off of frequency spectrum as a means to generate revenue, since they consider the wireless spectrum to be a scarce resource.
Microsoft’s Africa Initiative GM Fernando de Sousa said: "The fact is wireless spectrum is really underutilised. There is also a frequency dividend happening with the migration by many countries to a digital TV broadcast system, and this has the ability to free up a lot of spectrum that can be used for internet connectivity."
Microsoft has teamed up with the Tanzanian government, an internet service provider in that country and the University of Dar es Salaam to explore the use of TV white spaces in delivering connectivity to businesses and for educational purposes.
"It’s very simple. If people can connect, they can transact and then they can do business," Mr De Sousa said. "The University of Dar es Salaam is using this project to see if students can start small businesses to support themselves while studying."
However, while Microsoft and Google are exploring a technology that could bring connectivity to millions of people, their aims are not totally altruistic.
"This (the Tanzanian TV white-spaces trial) is not a charity, this is not a handout, this is a business development exercise," Microsoft’s Mr De Sousa said.
Google’s Mr Mckend said: "For every person and for every extra device connected to the internet causes a company like Google to thrive. However, there are a lot of extra benefits for the ordinary person to being connected."