Africa's great 'white spaces': tech's new frontier

Sun Nov 10, 2013 6:04am EST
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By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - At Cape Town's Elswood Secondary School, even the metal grills welded into its walls did not deter burglars from ripping out the copper cables that delivered Internet to the students of this tough neighborhood.

But Elswood's pupils were saved by alternative technology - free wireless connection via unused parts of the TV spectrum known as white space. It's being provided by a consortium led by Google as part of a wider trial. Elsewhere in the country Microsoft is operating similar pilots. Both are racing to fine tune a technology that could ultimately bring cheap broadband to the entire continent.

"Using white spaces will definitely be a more cost effective way to take Internet to the masses," said Spiwe Chireka, an analyst at research firm IDC.

Africa is the world's last major untapped market for Internet access. Only 16 percent of its billion people use the Internet - half the penetration rate of Asia, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Most Africans who can access the Internet do so via mobile phones because few have the landlines that have been the means of connecting in Western countries. This has pushed broadband usage to 11 percent this year from just 2 percent in 2010. But mobile phone companies are reluctant to build costly masts and networks in remote rural areas - meaning hundreds of millions of Africans have little prospect of ever going online.

Google and Microsoft are chasing this massive new market, aiming to provide white space Internet access to rural swathes with no coverage and in megacities where overcrowding and built up areas can mean frustratingly poor phone reception.

Africa's thinly populated airwaves - Zimbabwe, for instance, has only one TV station - make it ideal for this technology because of the abundance of available spectrum. Microsoft is running pilot schemes in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa with the aim of launching commercial projects thereafter. Google is sponsoring trials in schools, including Elswood, across South Africa.

While for both firms the logic of developing cheaper ways to access new customers is clear, the incentive for governments is also compelling. World Bank research shows that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration can result in an extra 1.4 percentage points of annual economic growth.   Continued...

Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings