The Opportunities of TVWS Spectrum in Africa

October 5, 2011

Around the world, connectedness has begun to define the our ability to gain access to education, to participate in governance, and to create and access resources whether nationally or globally. Increasingly, we see a direct relationship between the growth of broadband infrastructure and national economic growth.

The African continent is on the cusp of a broadband transformation as more and more undersea fibre optic cables find their way to African shores. However, in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, access to these new terabytes of fibre optic broadband only reaches major cities. We rely on wireless technology to reach out beyond major urban areas. Yet, as demand grows, existing wireless capacity is threatened as more and more people come online.

Following on the International Institute of Communications (IIC) and their Annual Conference on October 3-4, the TVWS Spectrum in Africa workshop taking place in Johannesburg today is offering an opportunity to year to foster debate around  Television White Spaces (TVWS)spectrum and the possibility it holds for Africa.

WAPA Chairperson Henk Kleynhans, Steve Song of Village Telco/Shuttleworth Foundation and Ory Okolloh (Google, Policy Manager for Africa, founder of Ushahidi) are the impetus behind this event, which is being hosted by the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and sponsored by Google Africa, the Open Society Institute and Internet Solutions.

By bringing together government officials, communication regulators, and industry professionals in mainly Southern Africa to hear from experts in the industry, as well as international speakers contributing on the progress of TV White Spaces in the United States, including the pros, cons, pitfalls, unforeseen problems and unforeseen benefits with regards to WISPA members and the industry as a whole, today is about exploring how TVWS spectrum could transform the connectivity landscape in Africa to achieve the goal of creating affordable access for all and boosting the growth of the technology sector in sub-Saharan Africa.  

So why is TWS spectrum important?

(Taken from Steve Song’s article on Africa and Television White Spaces)

  1. You don’t need a spectrum license! Or at the very least licensing is very, very lightweight. This means that you you can deploy TWS technology in a very similar manner to other unlicensed wireless technologies such as WiFi. This means more market entrants, more competition, and ultimately more service and better prices for consumers.
  2. You don’t need to re-farm spectrum! Re-farming spectrum which involves moving existing spectrum holders from one band to another band is notoriously painful and long-winded. Just look as the pain-in-the-behind that iBurst and Sentech’s spectrum holding in the 2.6GHz range has been for that process. TWS spectrum can re-use unused television spectrum without moving any existing spectrum holders.
  3. It’s lovely spectrum! Television spectrum is capable of penetrating obstacles such as trees and building much more easily than WiFi spectrum or WiMax for that matter. This means that it will be MUCH easier to deploy this technology and it can be deployed a lot more affordably. It is not without downsides. You don’t get as much throughput through TWS spectrum, probably more like 2Mb/s but frankly that is plenty for loads of applications.
  4. This is such an opportunity for Africa. Pundits are estimating that the TWS market may be worth 4 billion dollars in the U.S. This is a country that already has broadband and is packed with television broadcasters. Here in South Africa it would be hard to find a place where more than a half dozen television channels were in use. Likewise the need for affordable connectivity is so much greater. This is SUCH an opportunity!

Why are we playing “catch up” when we clearly should be leading the way?

Henk Kleynhans, in his presentation  is calling for unlicenced but managed spectrum, as it will give a major boost to innovation, entrepreneurship and tech skills development. WAPA aims for this proposal to reach those that are in a position  to make informed decisions regarding spectrum usage and aim to foster dialogue on TV White Spaces with South Africa as starting point.

Call to Action

Right now manufacturers are gearing up for mass production of TVWS devices. If we can put appropriate spectrum regulation in place, we can seize the day as these devices become available.

Now is the time to act. As Digital Dividend spectrum is on the cusp of becoming available there is a danger that incumbent license holders will seek to lock down television spectrum within traditional private-property style licenses. While there is a place for this kind of license, a balanced approach is needed. Too much is at stake to not open up more unlicensed spectrum. TVWS spectrum can enable a new generation of wireless entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa.

Get involved. Show support. Talk about this opportunity. Follow this event on Twitter today: #tvwsafrica