Microsoft-backed TV white spaces trial goes commercial in Ghana

The first commercial broadband network in Africa has gone live - and students are the first to use it.
Written by Adam Oxford, Contributor on

Students at a remote Ghanaian college are to become the first people in Africa able to buy internet connectivity delivered using TV white spaces, after the Ghanaian regulator granted the first licence to operate a commercial white spaces network on the continent.

The service is being made available by local networking firm Spectra Wireless. Spectra has been working with Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative to run a white spaces pilot for the last year. Through 4Afrika, Microsoft has backed similar pilot programs in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Philippines.

Using the new service, students at Koforidua Polytechnic and in some surrounding dormitories can get a wi-fi connection starting from 2 Ghanaian cedi ($0.61) a day for unlimited bandwidth. Students can choose from symmetrical services with speeds ranging from 0.5Mbps to 2Mbps.

"Even in advance of launching the commercial service, we have over 5,800 unique client devices registered on our network, out of a student population in Koforidua of 8,500, so the interest level already has been high," says Sam Darko, country leader of Spectra Wireless.

In addition to internet access, students can also use Spectra's academic platform for universities, djunglEd, and access Microsoft cloud services. Smart devices are also being sold with interest free finance for students.

TV white spaces, otherwise known as dynamic spectrum allocation, is seen as a promising form of connectivity for extending broadband networks to rural areas across the world - including parts of the US. It works on unlicensed areas of the radio frequency spectrum that are allocated for analogue TV channels, using gaps in the signal to carry internet traffic.

Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have all run white spaces pilots in Africa, and it is considered a promising alternative for broadband access where building a commercial case for 4G or fibre is tough.

Many governments are broadly supportive of white spaces as a networking technology, and it is specifically cited in the South African National Broadband Plan. Industry bodies such as the GSMA and ITU, however, have been less supportive. The GSMA in particular holds the position that TV white spaces may give telecoms newcomers - like Microsoft and Google - an unfair competitive advantage due to lack of regulation. The GSMA also cites concerns with signal quality.

Steve Song, the founder of Village Telco, an NGO which builds low cost networks for underserviced areas, outlined some of the issues around white spaces in a review of African telecoms published in December.

"Interestingly, the most significant impact that dynamic spectrum in Africa has had in 2014, has been in the United States where evidence from trials in South Africa and Ghana have led the FCC to more progressive regulation of dynamic spectrum in the US," Song writes. "Mediatek, the third largest manufacturer of wi-fi chips in the world, have announced that they will bring a dynamic spectrum chipset to mass market by Q4 of 2015. Hopefully that will move things along a little faster."

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