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Microsoft eyes white spaces to bring broadband to rural Kenya

Through a pilot project in Kenya, Microsoft hopes to show that white spaces offer a viable, low-cost way of extending broadband access to unserved and underserved communities in Africa.
Written by Lance Harris, Contributor

Microsoft and its partners hope to have the infrastructure in place "within weeks" to begin a pilot project that uses TV white spaces to bring broadband services to underserved communities in Kenya.

The pilot is a joint effort between Microsoft, ISP Indigo Telecom, and the Kenyan government's Ministry of Information and Communications. The project will use TV white spaces and solar-powered base stations to provide low-cost wireless broadband access to rural areas near Nanyuki and Kalema.

Microsoft hopes that the network will create new opportunities for commerce, education, healthcare, and delivery of government services in these regions. The project forms part of Microsoft's 4Afrika Initiative, a $70m effort to bring smart devices, connectivity and technology training to African entrepreneurs, youth, developers and graduates, which has also seen the launch of a Windows Phone device aimed at the continent.

Microsoft decided to launch the white space pilot in Kenya because it had a partner with white space experience in Indigo as well as strong support for the initiative from the government, Paul Garnett, director at Microsoft's Technology Policy Group, said on Tuesday.

Ideal conditions

Market conditions in Kenya also make it ideal for the pilot: only two percent of Kenyans are broadband subscribers, Garnett said, and many of those who have smartphones are not using them to access the internet because of the high cost of data services.  As such, Kenya is a sound market to investigate the commercial viability of delivering affordable broadband access using white space frequency.

The Microsoft pilot, announced on Monday, will span 20 community anchor locations near Nanyuki and Kalema, including schools, a clinic, a library and government offices. In phase one of the project, Indigo will create a network of 20 base stations and 2,000 end–user devices that provides broadband coverage across a 6,000 square km area. Featuring white space radios manufactured by Adaptrum, the trial network will bring wireless broadband to 6,000 people.

TV white spaces are the unused portions of wireless spectrum in the frequency bands generally used for television

Using Windows 8 tablets and applications along with Office 365, Indigo will provide computer labs and instruction at the pilot sites. The company will also work with community leaders and local companies to identify services and applications that benefit communities.

TV white spaces are the unused portions of wireless spectrum in the frequency bands generally used for television. Microsoft believes that they are well-suited to delivering low-cost broadband to rural communities because radio signals in these bands travel further and penetrate obstacles more effectively than other types of radio signals.

According to Microsoft, a white space network in the UHF part of TV white space (600MHz) operating at the same power levels as current wi-fi devices (40 or 100 milliwatts) needs around 16 times fewer access points to deliver the same coverage as wi-fi in 2.4GHz.  

At higher power levels, TV white space can cover multi-kilometre areas with connectivity akin to 3G/4G wireless networks. Field trials in Cambridge, England have confirmed that up to 8Mbps actual speed can be achieved over 5.5km links using 8MHz of bandwidth.

Obstacles to deployment

The technology is proven, but there are still regulatory and legal barriers to wider deployment said Garnett. "We hope regulators around the world will take note of the success of this project and develop legal frameworks that support broader commercial deployment of white spaces technology," Garnett said.

Telecom policymakers need to move away from promoting exclusive-use licensing in favour of a mix of exclusive-use and non-exclusive spectrum access approaches across a variety of spectrum bands, he added.

By promoting dynamic spectrum access in spectrum made available on a non-exclusive basis, regulators could reduce broadband costs and spur innovation through lower barriers to entry and increased competition, according to Microsoft. TV white space is the first "globally harmonised opportunity" to use dynamic spectrum access technologies and techniques.

Microsoft is eyeing opportunities to roll white space projects out in other countries in eastern and southern Africa. Google has a similar trial underway in Cape Town, South Africa, which also aims to investigate the commercial feasibility of white space for broadband connectivity.

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