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Google pushes TV white space to connect rural Africa

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Earlier this year, search engine giant Google teamed up with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to launch a pilot project using TV “white space” technology.

Google teamed up with ICASA to launch a pilot project using TV “white space” technology (image: file)
Google teamed up with ICASA to launch a pilot project using TV “white space” technology (Image source: File)

The aim of the test was to demonstrate that white spaces spectrum – which is unused radio and TV frequencies – could be used to provide broadband internet connectivity to rural areas.

The issue surrounding spectrum allocation and licensing has been a hot topic in South Africa for a while now, with the Department of Communication (DoC) facing increasing pressure from cellular companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to aloocate additional spectrum in order to make broadband available to more communities in South Africa.

“Switching over to digital broadcasting will be the quickest way to increase the white spaces spectrum, because digital television uses less space on the frequency spectrum than analogue broadcasting technology does,” explains Mitchell Barker, CEO of, a comprehensive online directory listing many of South Africa’s voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers. “This was supposed to have happened in South Africa already. The original deadline for migrating from analogue to digital was seven years ago, back in 2008, but due to frustrating legal delays, the new deadline has been pushed back to mid-2015.”

According to Rob Lith, Business Development Director for Connection Telecom, LTE (Long Term Evolution) is also a promising solution for mobile broadband deployment. “But with the spectrum mess in South Africa, roll-out by the operators has been limited. Hopefully the newly appointed Minister of Communications, Yunus Carrim, will get moving on this.”

LTE would indeed be a great solution to bring high speed internet to more people in South Africa, where mobile penetration is high, at 66% per unique subscriber. Recent statistics from BuzzCity show that smartphone penetration rate in South Africa is at 19%. This number is set to grow as these devices continue to become more affordable.

In November 2012, the GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, released a report in which it was revealed that sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world, with an average growth rate of 44% since 2001. Mobile connections here have spiked to 475 million, compared to just 12.3 million fixed line connections. The GSMA projects that with necessary spectrum allocations, the mobile industry could fuel the growth of 14.9 million new jobs in sub-Saharan Africa between 2015 and 2020.

However, despite investments of US$ 16.5 billion over the past five years allocated across five key African markets – including South Africa – and mainly aimed at expanding networking capacity, the current amount of spectrum allocated to mobile services in sub-Saharan Africa is among the lowest in the world. Some countries apportion as little as 80MHz, compared to the 500MHz or more allocated to mobile in developed markets. With mobile internet traffic predicted to grow 25-fold over the next four years, lack of spectrum could result in serious network congestion.

So with local LTE roll-out also in limbo due to the stalled spectrum allocation, South African service providers have to look at other options to provide broadband, such as wireless. “According to an Internet Access in SA report compiled by Cisco and World Wide Worx last year, wireless broadband in South Africa has been growing almost three times as fast as fixed-line broadband in the country,” Lith says. “We have seen that Telkom has written off its fixed line network on its balance sheet and is investing more in its mobile network than it is elsewhere. They have cautioned that their fixed Diginet service will be reaching end of life in 2016.”

Lith does not think that fixed line ADSL should be discounted altogether, though. “Where the install base of copper is mature, stable and not under threat from thieves, ADSL can continue to grow. As for new installations and threatened areas, wireless (microwave over long distances and WiMAX over shorter distances) is the better broadband delivery model.”

In the meantime, sluggish, limited broadband, high costs and lack of spectrum are impacting the South African economy. “Between 2010 and 2012, South Africa’s ICT sector reportedly only accounted for about 7% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), compared to 8.5% in Brazil,” Barker says. “Broadband access holds the key to education, job creation, commerce, collaboration and networking. The fact that Yunus Carrim is South Africa’s fourth Communications minister in as many years tells us that the government is fully aware that they have been failing the citizens.”

Staff Writer

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