Skip to main content

Unused TV white spaces could be the way to get highspeed wireless internet to millions living outside major African cities. Manufacturers are gearing up for mass production of white space devices and now is the time to act. APC and partners offer an important workshop for govt officials, regulators and professionals in October.

The African continent is on the cusp of a broadband transformation as more and more undersea fibre optic cables find their way to African shores. However, in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, access to these new terabytes of fibre optic broadband only reaches major cities. We rely on wireless technology to reach out beyond major urban areas. Yet as demand grows, existing wireless capacity is threatened as more and more people come online.

The history of spectrum: Why all this white space?

When wireless spectrum was first allocated for television broadcast in the early part of the 20th century, broadcast and broadcast reception technology was crude by today’s standards. In essence, broadband transmitters had to “shout” because the reception devices were a bit deaf. To cope with these loud services, regulators decided that gaps should be left in spectrum assignments as “guard” bands to prevent television signals from interfering with each other. These “guard” bands are also known as television white spaces because of the “white” noise signal that appears on a television in these unused bands.

Things have changed. Wireless technology has evolved to the point where it can operate efficiently within these “guard” bands without interfering with television broadcast. In 2010, in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Television White Spaces (TVWS) spectrum for unlicensed use. Many analysts are predicting that the FCC ruling will have an impact on increasing connectivity in the U.S., particularly in rural areas.

What are the advantages of television white spaces spectrum?

  • More competition. TVWS technology is designed for unlicensed (but not unregulated) use. This means that TVWS technology can be deployed in a very similar manner to other unlicensed wireless technologies such as WiFi. This results in lower barriers to market entry, more competition, and ultimately more service and better prices for consumers.
  • More innovation. When the 2.4GHz band was designated for unlicensed use, nobody predicted the wealth of new devices that would emerge from microwave ovens to baby monitors to the nearly ubiquitous WiFi. Creating another range of unlicensed spectrum will attract entrepreneurs and innovators to create new services that we have not dreamed of yet.
  • Less administrative overhead. Re-allocating spectrum involves moving existing spectrum holders from one band to another band. This process is notoriously painful and long-winded. TVWS spectrum can re-use unused television broadcast spectrum without moving or interfering with any existing spectrum holders.
  • More performance. Television spectrum is capable of penetrating obstacles such as trees and building much more easily than WiFi spectrum or WiMax for that matter. This means that it will be much easier to deploy this technology and it can be deployed a lot more affordable.

Call to action

Currently manufacturers are gearing up for mass production of TVWS devices. If we can put appropriate spectrum regulation in place, we can seize the day as these devices become available. Now is the time to act. As digital dividend spectrum is on the cusp of becoming available there is a danger that incumbent license holders will seek to lock down television spectrum within traditional private-property style licenses. While there is a place for this kind of license a balanced approach is needed. Too much is at stake to not open up more unlicensed spectrum. TVWS spectrum can enable a new generation of wireless entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa.

Workshop in October in Johannesburg focuses on Kenya and South Africa

APC, the Open Spectrum Alliance of South Africa, the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) and Google Africa are offering a one-day workshop on 5 October 2011 following the International Institute of Communications (IIC) meeting to be held in Johannesburg from 3 to 4 October 20111. It will be an opportunity for government officials, communication regulators, civil society actors and industry professionals in Africa to learn about the opportunity that TVWS spectrum represents, to hear from experts in the industry and to begin to explore how TVWS spectrum could transform the connectivity landscape in Africa to achieve the goal of creating affordable access for all and also boosting the growth of the technology sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

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.

Photo by benleto. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 2.0