Out of Africa – Hope for TV White Space?
I attended a TV White Space event in Senegal in Africa last week. It was hosted by Google and Microsoft and others with the aim of promoting TV White Space usage there. What was immediately noticeable was the energy and the very keen interest in the potential of TV white space. There was a strong ‘can do’ attitude prevailing. There was also a really interesting mix of technologists, regulators and public interest activist groups. I think the latter added very much to the gathering and made it different from other TVWS events I have gone to in Europe and the USA. And significantly contributed to the can do attitude.
Over the course of the event a number of TV White Space Trials were described. There seems to be a substantial one currently in Cape Town in South Africa with others ongoing in Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi among other places.
The Cape Town trial currently is focused on providing connectivity to schools in the Tygerberg area of Cape Town. It seems ten schools are connected to some kind of white space back bone. They are using Carlson Wireless radios. The main basestation consisting of three sectors is over 6 km from the schools that are being served. By the way they still have Analogue TV in South Africa but the digital receivers are turned on even if no one is yet receiving. Despite this there are white spaces to be found. No surprise there.
In Kenya a guy called Pete Henderson from Indigo Telecom is behind the main moves there. This video gives a good sense of what is happening. They are using equipment from Adaptrum. In his talk Pete said they have identified 30 thousand sites at which they could potentially install TVWS basestations. He speaks in terms of connecting villages to the Internet Cloud which is a nice way of putting things.
I was most impressed by the Malawi trials. These trials are run by the University of Malawi with involvement with a group of people from ICTP in Trieste in Italy (Marco Zennaro and Ermanno Pietrosemoli). ICTP is a very interesting organisation under UNESECO and it provides scientists from developing countries with the continuing education and skills. Chomora Mikeka from the University of Malawi described the Malawi trials. They made use of cheap sensors developed by the ICTP team to identify white spaces and they simply switched their equipment to the available frequencies. In one slide Chomora showed a non-technical person working away with the sensors and simply configuring the system. Ok everything is supposed to be automatic but what I loved about this is that they just got out there and did it. There is no database yet, no anything and they are not letting that hold them back.
It could be the case that Africa may offer the only hope for TV White Spaces. Vanu Bose gave a talk to this effect at the Wireless Spectrum Research and Development (WSRD) Workshop IV on Promoting Economic Efficiency in Spectrum Use: the economic and policy R&D Agenda in Cambridge in Boston recently. Despite moves elsewhere on the TV white space front, they are under threat. We have the looming incentive auctions in the USA. And there are rumblings about some kind of converged broadband and broadcasting architecture for the TV bands in Europe in preparation for WRC2015. This would effectively, share the TV bands between the big boys – the mobile operators and the broadcasters.
So we are in great need of a champion and perhaps Africa can be that Champion.
I would add two more points.
I think Africa being a champion would be great BUT this should not be a way for those in the developed world to avoid TVWS. I have a feeling the Africa story may suit some mobile operators – i.e. Africa is far enough away and their dominance in the world in general will not be eroded if TVWS gains traction there.
Secondly the overwhelming feeling I came away with from the event is that the equipment is so not there yet. This does relate to the fact that large investment in the development of the radios cannot be made unless a market for the radios is obvious. I do not blame the start-ups for this at all. I admire the risks they take in fact. However I think the prototypes that exist are so limited by the rules that in particular the FCC and to a lesser extent Ofcom have taken that they are not really able to showcase the full glory of the TVWS. Again I understand how these radios need to be built in a way that makes them likely to be certified by the regulators BUT our understanding of what is possible is purely seen through the lense of set of rules from one country. For example all the radios are single channel radios – hence there is no sense of the kind of bandwidths that might be possible using multiple channels that are plentiful in rural areas for example.
In summary, it is crucial we use the TVWS in as open and easy a way as possible. Not because they are magic and provide a solution to everything. They don’t in fact. They are just part of the wider picture. We need to occupy this space because we need frequencies which are not controlled by a small and ever more powerful group consisting of the mobile operators. We need to balance the forces of communication.