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[NAIROBI] Parts of the wireless spectrum that have been abandoned or left unused by television (TV) broadcasters as they increasingly move to digital transmission may provide a faster and cheaper way to beam the Internet to remote rural areas and roll out a new generation of 'super Wi-Fi' in cities.
Technology giants such as Microsoft and Google are pushing for governments around the world to open up this 'white space', hoping that it will boost innovation in Internet delivery, according to William Webb, the chief technology officer at one such start-up offering the necessary technology, Neul, in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
A recent example is a pilot initiative in Kenya that aims to boost Internet access in rural areas.
The Mawingu project ― named after the Swahili word for cloud ― is part of an initiative by Microsoft and a global telecommunications provider, Indigo Telecom, designed to provide affordable, high-speed wireless Internet access using former TV frequencies, old-fashioned antennas and solar-powered base stations.
Affordable rural coverage
Peter Henderson, Indigo Telecom's chairman, tells SciDev.Net that Kenya will be the first African country to benefit from the Wi-Fi initiative, which aims to deliver affordable coverage to its 30 million rural inhabitants.
"For example, a person will pay US$1.20 a week to access the Internet, thus allowing rural Kenyans to maximise their collective learning potential in a sustainable, socially responsible manner," he says.
As part of the project, smart phones and computers with Microsoft programmes will also be donated by Microsoft and non-governmental to schools, hospitals and other social centers and Indigo Telecom will train and equip field personnel and organise workshops to help roll it out to the communities.
Shem Ochuodho, a Kenyan information and communications technology expert who is currently advising the South Sudanese government, says: "Reusing released frequencies as a national resource where justified is a commendable feat".
But he says that the Kenyan government and regulatory authority the Communications Commission of Kenya, need to come up with a comprehensive plan to reassign unused frequencies.
If successful, Ochuodho explains, the project will benefit smartphone users including tourists who may want to access broadband in areas still not yet served by mobile broadband.
Webb says: "TV white space has been talked about for about a decade now. And there have been many people suggesting many different kinds of applications for it."
The main uses suggested are extending rural internet access and setting up city-wide wireless networks — wireless signals sent through these frequency bands would go much further than existing wifi, potentially covering a whole city.
The concept of using this part of the spectrum has moved from discussion at US universities and think-tanks to big companies, which have been lobbying around the world for national regulators to open it up, he says.
The key advantage is that the TV spectrum tends to be at lower frequencies than other existing available frequencies and these travel further than those used for conventional Wi-Fi or cellular mobile phone networks, meaning that fewer base stations are needed.
"That just helps with the economics," Webb says. To provide Wi-Fi to rural areas requires a base station to send out signals and some kind of radio device in each home, he says.
"Using TV white space is not a paradigm shift; it just improves the economics a bit compared with other systems, [but] maybe that improvement is enough to tip the balance in a number of different areas," Webb says.
Instead of the frequencies between 400 and 800 megahertz being reserved for TV broadcasters that pay a lot of money for exclusive use, companies are pushing for them to be unlicensed, he says. Examples of unlicensed frequencies are the WiFi and Bluetooth; they are free but you have to share them with other users.
TV white space is "the biggest game in town at the moment in the unlicensed area", Webb says, and some companies believe this is where a lot of innovation could be unleashed.
Some governments, such as the United States, have already opened up their white space, with others, such as Canada, Singapore and the United Kingdom, considering doing so, he says.
"There's a lot of interest in the Asia-Pacific region — Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand — those kinds of countries have all agreed to trials," Webb says.
Spread of ideas
Access to white space may follow what happened with mobile phone frequencies, he says, which started off in a few European countries and rapidly spread around the world as other regulators saw what was happening.
Webb estimates that, by 2016, the vast majority of countries will allow some form of access to white space frequencies to Internet providers.
White space may also benefit urban Internet users by offering an alternative to 3G and 4G mobile broadband networks.
Big Internet companies are likely to "be looking to see if they can have broadband systems for cities that can compete with or be an alternative to the 3G and 4G systems as to some degree Wi-Fi already is", Webb says.
"If you can find a Wi-Fi signal in a coffee shop, you'll tend to use that rather than 3G or 4G," he says. White space may enable that Wi-Fi to be expanded to cover entire cities.
The main barrier to opening up white space is concern about interference with TV signals and, given that there is no immediate benefit to broadcasters, they are "naturally going to be very cautious and inclined to oppose", he says.
See below for a video about the Mawingu project: