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TV white space: The centuries-old tech that’s taking the Internet to villages

By George Kiongo | Apr 4th 2018 | 2 min read
By George Kiongo | April 4th 2018

I’ve been looking at innovative technologies around Internet connectivity, and realised that aside from greater connectivity speed, there’s another more pressing need in Kenya: we need to connect remote regions of our country to the Internet.

For the longest time, development has seemed to be concentrated in urban centres, with cities and towns looking to leap to 5G, while some of our rural or remote regions have yet to get any sort of connectivity.

Yet, connectivity has the potential to transfer knowledge, invigorate trade and spur economic growth in areas that have otherwise been deemed barren.

Fortunately, there’s technology that’s successfully being used to tackle this problem – and it’s actually been with us for the past century: TV white spaces.

For those of us old enough to have watched broadcasts on an analog TV set, you might remember how we used to change channels through a rotary dial. As you rotated the dial, you’d land on unallocated channels before you got to whatever station you wanted to watch.

These unallocated channels showed nothing but a series of black and white dots. That’s what we call TV white spaces. Essentially, these are unused frequency spaces created to make sure that channels that broadcast on allocated frequencies don’t interfere with each other.

Group of African children, from Samburu tribe, using laptop in the village, Kenya, East Africa.

Long distances

These white spaces have the ability to be broadcast over long distances and go through barriers, including buildings and vegetation. This means that they have excellent utility to extend or complement the common methods of Internet transmission, like wi-fi and cellular networks. These latter methods use higher frequencies or need costly infrastructure to set up, and are still prone to interference and have limited reach.

The most common implementation of white spaces tech has been in providing last-mile connectivity, where mostly fiber is extended past major towns into remote regions.

A local firm, Mawingu WiFi, in conjunction with Microsoft 4 Africa, is using this technology to provide last-mile connectivity, taking fast, cost-friendly Internet to the masses in rural Kenya. It’s currently operating in Laikipia and Central regions, connecting schools, business and households as far as 40 kilometres away from towns or trade centres.

The TV white space tech, however, has its downsides.

First, the base stations needed to link remote regions to town centres need to be set up closer to the remote users. These places rarely have a stable source of electricity, which has forced providers to use renewable sources of electricity, like solar and wind energy, to power these stations. This ultimately ups the cost of set up.

The second challenge has been convincing governments around the world to allow these frequencies, which remained otherwise unused, to be utilised for data connectivity. The red tape around such matters can be a huge hurdle to jump. 

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