[AfrICANN-discuss] Africa and TV White Spaces: The ghosts in the machine could provide additional spectrum at low cost

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Tue Oct 11 07:47:29 SAST 2011

Africa and TV White Spaces: The ghosts in the machine could provide
additional spectrum at low cost
week saw a workshop on TV White Spaces sponsored by APC, the Open Spectrum
Alliance of South...
 This week saw a workshop on TV White Spaces sponsored by APC, the Open
Spectrum Alliance of South Africa, the Wireless Access Providers Association
in South Africa and Google Africa take place in Johannesburg. White spaces
technology promises what one regulatory contributor dubbed the nirvana of
more efficient spectrum use and the possibility of significantly lower costs
to deliver it to the customer. Russell Southwood seeks to explain what TV
White Spaces are and how they can be used to deliver wider wireless access.

As Steve Song, CEO, The Village Telco explained it, TV White Spaces exist
because in the old days analog television transmitters needed to “shout”
because TV’s were less good at picking up the signal. As a result, unused
“guard bands” were created between transmission channels to ensure that
there was no signal interference between different broadcasts.

Until recently, spectrum had a finite capacity and like any finite resource,
this both tended to both drive the price up and in many ways act against
active competition. With the new TV White Spaces technology, the opportunity
exists for additional spectrum to be bought into use and at what one
participant suggested might be as much as “one tenth of the cost.”

Now whether it’s actually that figure remains to be proven but Africa needs
as many things that will lower local bandwidth delivery to enable the widest
use to create a critical mass of users. And nowhere are these needs more
pressing than in poorer urban and rural areas.

In broad terms, there are two ways of delivering spectrum use in the TV
White Spaces. Either you use cognitive radio that senses which radio bands
are not in use and switches the signal when they start being used again. Or
there is a central geo-location database against which the device checks for
free spectrum. All of this is invisible to the user and will not require
special customer equipment but takes advantage of the already considerable
Wi-Fi user ecology. However, it will require some investment from operators.
These delivery mechanisms are sometimes described as “Super Wi-Fi”.

The example applications include: rural broadband, campus networks, cellular
offloading, home networks and Smart Grid Applications. From this menu,
Africa needs all the help it can get to deliver rural broadband and
operators are already needing help in offloading data traffic from their
congested networks.

The technology is at the testing rather than roll-out stage. Cognitive radio
has been tested in the USA and run into extensive opposition from
broadcasters. In the UK, the approach, according to Professor H. Nwana (a
Cameroonian by background) of Ofcom is to start with Geo-Location databases
but to open up to cognitive radio when the technology is agreed. There are
two pilots in the UK, one in Cambridge (which Microsoft is involved in) and
the other in Scotland.

The latter is run on the Isle of Bute by Malcolm Brew who used to run
Bushnet in East Africa and was covered previously in Balancing Act:
Microsoft recently demonstrated the geo-location database technology at the
Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi and Paul Mitchell from Microsoft who is
involved in the pilot in Cambridge presented at the workshop.

As Professor Nwana, Ofcom put it:”The nirvana of dynamic spectrum regulation
should be something all regulators should aspire to..in order to drive up
spectrum efficiciency.” This is probably something the Ghanaian Minister
Minister of Communications Haruna Iddrisu and the regulator would say “amen”
to (see Telecom News below) as they struggle like many policy-makers with
unused spectrum issues.

Neil Ahlsten, Business Development Manager – Sub-Saharan Africa, Google said
it would be interested in piloting the introduction of TV White Spaces
technology, particularly in South Africa. In the regulatory panel, with both
current and former representatives from Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria
and Kenya, all those present spoke of being interested in running pilots.

As Chair of that session, I pressed them to say who would be responsible for
then using the technology if it proved itself in the rural context: the
existing operators or new, local operators? Everyone on the panel (which
included the D-G of INCM, Americo Muchanga; Dumisana Ngwenya, ICASA, Ernest
Ndukwe, formerly of NCC, and Alice Munyua, formerly of CCK) found it easy to
envisage giving data licences.

But I pressed them about voice as this was the current main need in
uncovered rural areas. There was some hesitation but there was some
discussion about creating an ecology of smaller operators who might
interconnect with larger players. Steve Song also told us that the Village
Telco had an American investor called Investor Development and that it would
be focusing sales of its Wi-Fi mesh device (the mesh potato) on small
operators like cyber-cafes.

Google is particularly interested in lowering the current practical and
market barriers to access and Ahlsten described a pilot it is conducting
with Wananchi in Kenya at The Junction shopping mall branded Wazi. The aim
is to create seamless, cheap roaming Wi-Fi so that the user can access
bandwidth without needing to sign up to multiple providers. The hot-spot
bandwidth can be delivered by all ISPs and mobile operators with a Wi-Fi
roaming exchange that deals with the customer and wholesale billing.

The broader backdrop for the discussion of using TV White Spaces is the
digital transition in broadcasting which promises to lead to a “digital
dividend.” But all too rarely do telcos and broadcasters sit in the same
room so telco people tend to assume that whatever dividend will be generated
will be their’s to do mobile broadband with. The broadcasting licensing
cycle until this point has been relatively infrequent so African
broadcasters have not yet got their heads around these issues.

The majority of African countries have barely started on the transition
process and even South Africa – which likes to see itself as a leader in
these things – is already lagging badly behind its agreed timetable. So the
digital dividend is unlikely to be around the corner for most countries
until they start to pull their policy fingers out. The broadcasters’ main
fear is loss of spectrum opportunities: the new digital compression offers
multiple channels but there are few that have thought through in business
terms what they would do with them.

The lack of dialogue is often exacerbated by regulatory “silos”. Sometimes
regulators are converged (covering both broadcast and telecoms) but often
telecoms regulators handle spectrum management whilst a separate regulator
issues broadcast licences. It is rare for broadcasters to sit in the same
room as telcos to discuss these issues and although there were only a couple
of broadcasters in the room at the workshop, this was one of those rare
occasions where it happened. One of these broadcasters thought TV White
Spaces was a “cool” idea but was concerned to see the technical problems
fully worked through.

Africa already has a track-record for policy and regulatory innovation:
Celtel’s One Network roaming across borders; open access structures for
international, cross-border and national fibre; the Kenya open access LTE
consortium network; and last but not least, the light-touch regulation that
made a success of M-Pesa. This is another opportunity for Africa to be at
forefront of trialing a technology that innovates in policy and regulatory
terms. It can assist rural-roll-out; it can lower the cost of local
delivery; and provide a new route for data offset for mobile operators.
What’s not to like? source: http://www.balancingact-africa.com

© copyright StarAfrica.com
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