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How White Space Wi-Fi Could Bring Internet to the Rural Poor

The method could help large swaths of Africa with low population density, but government regulators have been sluggish on approvals.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: firutin/Flickr)

Flat maps are inherently false. Too many distortions occur when you peel a sphere and press it into a square. For instance, on a flat map, Africa doesn’t look like anything special. If it’s a good map, maybe it’s slightly larger than South America. If it’s bad, it’s roughly the same size as Greenland. But both versions undersell how massive Africa truly is.

There’s enough space between its borders to fit the United States, China, India, Japan, and most of Europe. It’s 14 times larger than Greenland. Seventy percent of the 1.1 billion people who live there reside in rural areas. With those people scattered far and wide, it’s been a struggle to bring Internet to Africa.

While the rest of the world’s Internet penetration is 52.5 percent (as of November of 2015), Africa only has a penetration rate of 28.1 percent. It’s not a coincidence that the number nearly matches the percentage of Africans who live in cities (around 30). When people don’t live near each other, they often can’t afford to split the cost of building out technology infrastructure. And so, much of Africa sits unconnected from the rest of the world.

But there’s a potential solution on the horizon: White Space Wi-Fi.

Remember those white noise channels back when television was broadcast into rabbit ear antennas, the fuzzy ones between CBS, NBC, and ABC? That’s the TV white space spectrum, or TVWS. The gaps were purposefully left during frequency allocation — which started back in the 1930s, when the technology needed to broadcast became relatively easy to come by — because of the potency of the signals. Without buffer zones, interference would have wrought havoc on the broadcasts.

“A lot of regulators in emerging market countries sometimes forget that they need to regulate for the benefits of citizens [of] their countries, sometimes they confuse that with regulating for big companies who want to sell lots of shiny things.”

But that potential power also points to its promise. While your home Wi-Fi signal may not make it past a few walls, White Space Wi-Fi easily travels 10 kilometers through trees, buildings, brick walls, and whatever else. Because of its strength, it’s an ideal solution for areas with low population density.

Why hasn’t it yet been rolled out? Unlike small-range Wi-Fi signals, use of the spectrum is regulated. There’s a much greater barrier to entry than just plugging something into a wall and pressing the on button. And it’s a barrier that large telecom companies have been helping prop up.

“The poor do not drive world spectrum policy,” says H. Sama Nwana, the executive director of the Digital Spectrum Alliance, an organization that advocates for more effective and efficient spectrum usage. “Let me put it bluntly. If you’re [a telecom company], do you want to sell thousands and thousands of stations, or hundreds?”

An ancillary problem is the big catch that comes with any new technological shift. While a chip which allows TVWS to be received by devices exists, manufacturers are hesitating to give the thumbs up to mass production (and lower prices) until the market demands it. Meanwhile, regulators are dragging their feet because the market has not yet developed. The dominos are mostly lined up, but the first one still needs a nudge.

Spectrum re-allocation is beginning to move in the right direction. “A few countries in Africa are starting to get it,” Nwana says. “Ghana gets it. Nigeria is beginning to get it. Malawi gets it.” In 2015, Mozambique, Botswana, Mauritius, and Morocco began a series of White Space pilot programs that will examine the technology’s potential. Perhaps most promisingly, a start-up in Kenya, Mawingu Networks, announced a bid for a $4 million loan to expand its own White Space “proven model.”

But it’s still not moving fast enough in Africa, or the rest of the world.

“Ninety-five percent of the spectrum is not being used in 95 percent of the places 95 percent of the time,” Nwana says. “We need to be moving from static allocation,” meaning the current norm, in which an organization or company gets exclusive use access over a huge area. “The idea that you’d allocate frequency when [an organization] is not going to use it in most rural parts, it’s crazy. If that spectrum is used in New York and Chicago, and not used in the middle of the United States, you should be able to dynamically allocate it.”

But those changes will only come when governments begin looking at spectrum allocation in a more progressive, less business-oriented frame of mind. Until they do, organizations like the Digital Spectrum Alliance will continue pleading their case.

“A lot of regulators in emerging market countries sometimes forget that they need to regulate for the benefits of citizens [of] their countries, sometimes they confuse that with regulating for big companies who want to sell lots of shiny things,” Nwana says. “It has to benefit the citizens of your country, not just benefit all these [telecom] guys.”