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TV White Spaces: “Broadband connectivity beyond a basic human right”

Arno Hart  TV White Spaces

Arno Hart
TV White Spaces

In 2011, a United Nations commission concluded that access to broadband internet is a basic human right. This puts Africa’s access, where only 15.6 percent of residents are connected, into stark context. Hence the excitement about the TV White Spaces scheme, which is being delivered by the likes of  Google, Microsoft, Carlson Wireless, Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), alongside others, who see this as a credible way to deliver high-speed internet to the continent.

Appropriately, considering it’s the setting for next month’s AfricaCast, Cape Town was the initial testing ground for the experiment. Prior to his own appearance at AfricaCast, Arno Hart, who manages the TV White Spaces Trial network, talks to IP&TV News about this thrilling – but hotly contested – scheme.

IP&TV: Hi Arno. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, the TV White Spaces Trial in Africa and your involvement with it?

Arno Hart: With the support of ICASA, the communications regulator of South Africa, a group of partners set up a TV White Spaces (TVWS) trial for ten schools in the Western Cape which ran over a six month period in 2013. The trial partners include the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET), Meraka Institute, e-Schools Network, Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA) and Google, with Comsol Wireless Solutions, Carlson Wireless Technologies and Neul as the vendor partners.  TENET is managing the network and providing IP transit, and I manage the Trial network.

What are the main obstacles that Africa and the White Spaces project itself faces in terms of connectivity?

TVWS delivers broadband over unused TV channels and could help to satiate the exploding demand for wireless bitstream.  What stands in the way of mass adoption of TVWS globally is the regulatory go-ahead in the respective countries.  Having said that, TVWS has seen a positive reception by regulators around the world, and numerous countries are currently undergoing TVWS trials.  This is a positive sign for TVWS, and we are specifically thankful to South Africa’s communication regulator, ICASA, for allowing the Cape Town trial, as well as other trials in South Africa.

The regulator shared that it intends to use the trial outcomes as inputs into South Africa’s TVWS regulatory process. Our analysis shows lots of available TV White Space spectrum today and even more after the digital transition. Since demonstrating non-interference and a measurable benefit to communities, we hope to see TV White Spaces made available to more and more communities.

In 2011 United Nations commission concluded that access to broadband internet is a basic human right. What are the main benefits the White Spaces trial can deliver to Africans?

TVWS elevates broadband connectivity beyond a basic human right.  The notion of the internet as purely a human right implies that connectivity for the African is about survival, to access the internet for basic content and services; downloading a government form to complete a birth certificate, or filing for a grant.  Manu Joseph, who authored The Illicit Happiness of Other People, recently opined that “too many people presume that what the poor want from the Internet are the crucial necessities of life.”  What TVWS can deliver to Africans is internet connectivity everywhere, anytime, and at little cost.  By opening up dynamic access to an abundance of unused spectrum, TVWS will expand the amount of bandwidth for delivering wireless broadband to the underserved, where copper phone lines or gigabit fibre doesn’t exist.  The hugely successful Cape Town TV White Spaces Trial has proven that broadband can be delivered over unused spectrum on a secondary basis, without interfering with the primary spectrum holders.

What about commercial opportunities? Africa’s seen a real commercial and creative explosion in recent years hasn’t it?

Internet connectivity in South Africa, and in Africa as a whole, lags most other regions of the world, with approximately 20% and 5% of the respective populations enjoying internet connectivity.  One reason is the cost of providing last mile infrastructure.  Over half of Africa’s population live in rural areas, and over half of those living in urban areas reside in settlements that lack access to basic infrastructure and services, including copper phone lines and optical fiber cables.  These are the populations that will see the greatest impact from technologies like TVWS that can deliver wireless broadband over long distances at a lower relative cost.  What makes TVWS unique is that it reaches into areas where no existing networking infrastructure (like local area networks and wide area networks) are in place to connect people and businesses.

You’re speaking at this year’s AfricaCast on the White Spaces trial. What are you hoping to achieve there? What is your message to the industry?

First, the schools experienced the real promise of TV White Spaces. Some even replaced their existing dial up and ADSL service with TVWS. For the first time, students could research rich-media educational materials and teachers collaborated with other schools over Skype. The hope is that all schools in South Africa may experience this quality of service if TVWS is made available throughout the country.

Second, there were no reports of interference during the trial.  The Meraka Institute performed empirical RF studies throughout the trial to measure interference.  They conducted area measurements to determine spectrum availability, ran ongoing 24/7 spectrum analysis at the base station to measure changes in RF, conducted lab studies to test the boundaries of power and other technical capabilities, and field studies at the schools to measure interference.  All studies demonstrated non-interference throughout the trial.

Arno Hart will be speaking at this year’s AfricaCast (Cape Town, November 12 – 14), the region’s premier show on the future of broadcasting. For booking and more info go here.

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