Microsoft’s solar powered white space tech to bring uncapped broadband for R20

If you were in any doubt at all as to whether or not TV white spaces (TVWS) were a Next Big Thing for South Africa, it’s time to disavow yourself of that notion. Google is trialling the tech in the Eastern Cape Western Cape (Oops – Ed) right now, and Microsoft has just announced that it is going to extend its own investigatory pilots into the technology from Kenya and Tanzania into South Africa.

What it’s also done is put a price on white space connectivity, and it’s very, very low. According to Microsoft South Africa MD Mteto Nyati, the firm reckons that a sustainable business model for TVWS in rural areas would be to sell connections at between R20-50 a month for up to 4Mbps uncapped bandwidth. Which would make it about ten times cheaper than current ADSL pricing and infinitely cheaper than 3G, as no-one has an uncapped mobile package in South Africa yet.

Inside TVWS

So what is this mysterious TVWS, and how can it be so cheap? Glad you asked.

The idea for TVWS is to make use of spare bandwidth in the frequency range typically licensed for broadcast analogue TV. That’s around about 600-800MHz, and there’s a surprisingly large amount of bandwidth which is unused there. Compared to mobile phone signals, these relatively low frequency parts of the spectrum are ideal for wireless networking over long range – they’re not especially well suited to high speeds, but they are good for ploughing a signal through obstacles and delivering cheap broadband. One mast can cover a range of up to five and a half kilometres or so, with a router at the other end in order to turn the signal into a regular WiFi network.

Campaigners like Steve Song have long championed the cause of TVWS as a solution to the growing digital divide on the continent.

The primary purpose of Microsoft’s trial will be to identify exactly which frequencies are capable of carrying a stable signal by analysing behaviour over a full year. Once complete, Nyati says that the plan is to work with partners in order to extend coverage nationally, covering both rural areas and urban spaces that the cell networks have left behind. Even Gauteng, the continent’s richest province, could benefit, he says, as there are large parts of Soweto and other townships with patchy or no signal still.

The beneficiaries in the short term, however, will be five schools in Limpopo which will be equipped with Windows tablets, a router and teacher training session in using technology to improve learning outcomes. According to Nyati, the historical problem with connecting these kinds of regions has as much to do with power availability as it has to do with cell tower logistics. If your potential customers can’t charge their phones because there’s no mains electricity, what’s the point of investing heavily in that mast?

Nyati has an answer for that too.

“The limiting factor in the past has always been electricity and connectivity, so we are looking at a network that is entirely solar powered,” he explains, “Where we’ve done this in Kenya, we’ve found that because of the solar power generation we’ve been able to provide electricity to the communities around the masts as well.”

That is then, this is now

In Limpopo this means free bandwidth and electricity for the schools for the duration of the trial. While Microsoft is partnering with the University of Limpopo, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and networking firm Multisource for this trial, the costs will apparently be met from the $60m 4Afrika fund established earlier in the year. The hub itself will be cited at the university and the schools drawn from the surrounding area – by my calculations that gives the mast a range almost to Polokwane in the west and Segwasi in the east.

Future plans include hooking up hospitals, doctors surgeries and other amenities using TVWS, although Nyati says that Microsoft has no plans to set up in competition to existing providers and would hope to partner with them for the next stage of rollout. Central government is also keenly watching the trial as a way of delivering on its promise for universal access by 2020.

“We want to make a game changer,” Nyati says, “We feel that through this type of technology we can help our country to participate in the 21st century and enable government to deliver services that it has not been able to deliver in the past.”

Nyati also adds that Microsoft isn’t being entirely altruistic. As part of its new strategy of shifting from software sales to “devices and cloud services”, it needs future customers to be able to get online in order to make money.

“If people are going to have access to the devices,” Nyati says, “Connectivity becomes the bottleneck. So we have decided to make it our job, our mission to drive low cost connectivity… to drive down the price of connectivity which has been a problem in Africa and especially in our country, in South Africa.”

The question is, will the incumbent networks rise to the same challenge?

(Image copyright South African Tourism)


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