Microsoft turns to solar-power and white space for South Africa's cheapest broadband

Microsoft says it can reduce access costs by a factor of ten for poor communities in Limpopo.
Written by Adam Oxford, Contributor

Microsoft South Africa is to fund a new trial for delivering internet connectivity using TV white spaces in rural areas of the Limpopo province.

TV white spaces uses unused parts of the analogue TV spectrum used to broadcast a low-power internet signal over ranges of up to 5.4km.

The year-long pilot project will help to establish which parts of the analogue spectrum will be suitable for use, and will initially connect five schools in Limpopo to a single antenna. It's hoped that the schools will be able to get download speeds of up to 4Mbps.

Microsoft is also supplying schools with computers and teacher training on using IT in education.

Limpopo's education department hit the headlines last year when it was discovered that primary schools were left without textbooks following non-delivery of a government contract and thousands of copies of key texts were found in illegal dumps. It's one of the poorest regions of the country and few who live there have access to the internet.

One of the biggest factors affecting the deployment of cell masts in rural areas is lack of a nearby connection to the power grid both for network operators and potential users. Microsoft South Africa managing director Mteto Nyati says the pilot will overcome that by using solar panels to power the mast, and he believes that they will be able to generate enough surplus energy to power routers and tablets at the schools involved too.

Nyati says that the trial isn't purely altruistic, but is about developing the company's new 'devices and cloud' strategy for African customers.

"Devices on their own mean very little, it's about the services that people consume on those devices," Nyati says, "so we have decided to make it our job, our mission, to drive low cost connectivity and drive down the price of connectivity which has been a problem in Africa and especially in South Africa."

The price is certainly the most ambitious part of the project. While established ISPs offer uncapped 1Mbps ADSL from around R339 ($34.89) per month, Nyati believes that white space broadband should be sustainable for between R20-50 ($2-5.15) for up to 4Mbps uncapped.

Microsoft will partner with Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the University of Limpopo and local networking firm Multisource. The total budget for the trial hasn't been revealed, but Microsoft has said it will be completely funded from its 4Afrika CSR fund.

The company has run similar white space  trials in Kenya and Tanzania, and rival Google is also investigating white space use in the Western Cape.

Once the Limpopo trial is completed, Nyati says that he hopes to partner with an established ISP to deploy white space broadband to other underserved areas, including Soweto in Gauteng. But there's no danger of Microsoft attempting to replicate projects like Google Fibre or Google Loon by going it alone on a larger scale.

"We see ourselves as an enabler, not a provider," says Nyati. "We are not in the telecoms space. I don't think you'll see us becoming a network provider."

Editorial standards