TV white spaces can open up low-cost high-speed internet across Africa: All we need is the regulatory go-ahead

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Por KAH para APCNews

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 13 October 2011

“We have the skills, the entrepreneurs, a spectrum model we can replicate, the standards, the technology and clearly we have the demand” said South African Henk Kleynhans in the wake of a TV white spaces workshop in Johannesburg last week. “All we need is a regulatory go-ahead.”

Unused TV white spaces could be the way to get highspeed wireless internet to millions in Africa including who have been enforcedly “offline” till now because they live outside major cities.

APC and partners gathered government officials, industry, regulators and professionals at a workshop in Johannesburg in October 5 focusing on television white spaces in Africa. The meeting was called at a time where there is a danger that incumbent licence holders will seek to lock down television spectrum within traditional private-property style licences.

“While there is a place for this kind of licence a balanced approach is needed. Too much is at stake to not open up more unlicenced spectrum. TVWS spectrum can enable a new generation of wireless entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa,” said the workshop organisers APC, the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) and Google Africa in a background document.

“Spectrum is a critical resource to any country and it should be managed in the national strategic interest and not just in the interests of the incumbent operators,” Steve Song, a social entrepreneur and founder of Village Telco told APCNews.

“APC believes that the best way of making sure that the public interest drives policy and regulation is to get people from business and civil society around the same table with regulators and policy makers,” APC director Anriette Esterhuysen added. “This event had added value as we were able to include senior regulators from outside Africa who were in Johannesburg for the annual conference of the International Institute of Communications.”

“Affordability is the key to enabling the benefits if ICTs in Africa and competition is the key to making access more affordable. Right now, access to spectrum is a key bottleneck to introducing more competition,” explained Song.

APCNews talked to Steve together with Henk Kleynhans, chair of the South African Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) —a collective voice for more than 120 wireless internet service providers across South Africa most of which are based in rural areas— and Kenyan Ory Okolloh, Google Policy and Government Relations Manager for Africa.

APCNews: What for you were the main points that came out of the Johannesburg workshop?

Henk Kleynhans: The problem of low broadband penetration is much more urgent in Africa than it is in the US or the UK and it is therefore imperative that we lead the way on TV white space usage and legislation.

Our regulators are surprisingly more sophisticated than they get credit for. ICASA [the South African regulator] is already working with universities and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on making TVWS available for broadband use. 

There is a real opportunity already to learn from the mistakes the FCC in the USA and OFCOM in the UK have made. From the expert testimony at the workshop, it appears spectrum databases were created for political rather than technical reasons. We could look at using databases, but rather as a complement to cognitive radios, instead of forming any type of barrier to rolling out Super Wi-Fi. 

Steve Song: The key point is that spectrum management typically involves long cycles of change. The digital dividend probably won’t be fully resolved in Africa for another 10 years. TVWS spectrum represents an immediate win that can be taken advantage of by regulators.

Ory Okolloh: This is an opportunity to do something different that could have a huge impact on how we increase both internet access and the quality of internet access in the region, and to be at the leading edge of TVWS

APCNews: One tweet coming out of the workshop said: “Cutting to the chase, @kenyanpundit asks the regulators who is ready to try a TVWS pilot.” What moves are you expecting to see after this meeting?

Steve: The good news was that all regulators at the event expressed an interest in piloting TVWS technology. [Ed. Note: The event was attended by regulators from South Africa, Kenya and Mozambique as well as a former regulator from Nigeria.] The other good news was that the workshop was picked up widely in the press and contributed to raising awareness of the issue.

Ory: Actually I am @kenyanpundit :-) I’d like to see more conversations between multiple stakeholders in a frank and open way as took place at the workshop and would also like the opportunity to involve more regional regulators in sharing the opportunities as well as case studies around TVWSAPC and other partners helped bring together a diverse group and ensured that this event was not the usual preaching to the choir. The debate was great, the questions pertinent and a rare thing happened – specific outcomes resulted from the workshop. 

Henk: I feel that ICASA is much more on the ball than previously thought, possibly because a lot of their work happens behind the scenes. ICASA knows from experience with wi-fi that better technology will always find a way into the market. It is crucial that ICASA plays a role in establishing the ground rules of Super Wi-Fi and ensuring a level playing field for service providers.  APC played a key role in making sure the right people came together in this forum.

Super Wi-Fi will land on our shores in due time, but if it’s not used in a legal and regulated fashion, the pioneers deploying rural broadband services will be operating in a grey-area as was the case with Wi-Fi and VoIP for too many years. And although they will gain customers, they will struggle to get finance for building infrastructure rapidly. 

In South Africa, we have the skills, the entrepreneurs with local relationships, ample spectrum available, a spectrum model we can replicate, the standards (IEEE 802.22), the technology and clearly, we have the demand. All we need is a regulatory go-ahead.

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The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international network and non-profit organisation founded in 1990 that wants everyone to have access to a free and open internet to improve lives and create a more just world. www.apc.org

APC has recently completed two spectrum-related research projects with support from the Open Society Institute. One focused on open spectrum for development and the other on digital migration in West Africa. The research found very limited understanding of spectrum regulation in general, and widespread lack of awareness of the challenges and opportunities posed by digital migration. APC ran a workshop dedicated to spectrum for development at the recent Internet Governance Forum in Kenya. The recommendations that came out of the workshop can be read online .

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Photo by rogergordon. Used with permission under creative commons license 2.0

(FIN/2011)

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