African white space

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While Africa is one of the most densely populated continents in the world, internet availability is still scarce in many regions, much to the chagrin of educators. But, thankfully, a major advancement in the technology industry could yield untold advantages for people throughout Africa — especially African students.

In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States approved a law that allowed private technology companies and individuals to make use of the unused frequencies, known as “white spaces”, that had until then acted as neutral zones to protect broadcast TV signals from interference. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told USA TODAY that the move marked a “significant victory for consumers,” and went on to say that the “ability to have Wi-Fi-like connectivity, at faster speeds and greater range” would effectively help more people connect to the Internet, regardless of income or geographical location.

Already, it would appear that private industry is pushing white space projects forward in a way that not only benefits people living in rural communities in the US, but also has fascinating implications for students throughout Africa — many of whom have historically lacked reliable access to the Internet. According to Eweek, Google’s analysts determined that there is white space available for Internet transmissions in parts of Cape Town, South Africa, and Dakar, Senegal.

Google launched a white space trial program in South Africa in March, wherein the company provided 10 schools in Cape Town with a broadband connection via white space transmissions. Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, a representative of Google South Africa, said that, beyond whatever good the technology could do for developing countries, white space Internet could also benefit city dwellers by “expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas.”

“White space” is known by various nicknames, including the “TV Band” or “Super WiFi.” Google co-founder and former CEO Larry Page even referred to white space as “Wi-Fi on steroids”  because these spectrums allow for the transmission of data over greater distances than standard WiFi or satellite internet. Because the white space spectrum falls in lower frequencies than cellular communications systems, white space transmissions can more easily penetrate through buildings, foliage, woodlands, and even the walls of people’s houses, making it all the more valuable to customers living in rural areas. According to PCWorld, the Nuels company in the UK claims to have transmitted 16MB of data per second across 10 kilometers, making white space Internet transmission comparable in speed to so-called 4G wireless networks in the US.

Google is touting the experiment in South Africa as a crowning achievement: “After six months, the trial has been a success” the company wrote. “The participating schools, which previously had slow or unreliable Internet connections, experienced high-speed broadband access for the first time. Teachers were able to use videos in their lesson plans, make Skype calls to other schools, update school websites, and send regular email updates to parents.”

The trial in Africa was largely an expansion on pilot programs started in the United States. In 2009, the first public white space network was launched in Claudville, Virginia — a town with a population of 900. Claude was home to a single high school, and the nearest town (Ararat) was just over five miles away. A channel database, required so that white space devices can query it to ensure they’re transmitting on a free frequency, was provided by Spectrum Bridge, and that company successfully used white spaces to link the center of town with internet access which could then be distributed via traditional Wi-Fi. The director of the Claudeville Computer Center, Roger Hayden, said that he was thrilled by the white space test, saying he “had been trying to get local service providers to bring broadband into Claudville for over 6 years with no success.”

This trial clearly demonstrated the potential social utility of white space — connecting those who had never been connected at a fraction of the cost of installing cables or fiber optic lines to link outlying areas to existing networks.

In 2010, shortly after Claudville went online, Wilmington, N.C. became a white space test site. Incidentally, PCWorld reported the heavily forested Wilmington had also been the first city in the U.S. to make the switch to from analog to digital TV. Because that transition had been fairly seamless, the FCC thought the city was the ideal candidate for this round of tests. According to Ars Technica, one side effect of the Wilmington test that manifested very early on was the unprecedentedly large number of children who received laptops for Christmas that year.

When Google conducted their experiments in Virginia and North Carolina, they found that white space makes broadband feasible in the United States where rural internet prices are otherwise outrageous for inadequate service. Dr. John Chapin of MIT has been one vocal advocate for white band Internet transmission, particularly as a means of getting rural communities online. “One application that’s gotten tons of interest in the media is low-cost Internet access,” Chapin said during a lecture. He went on to claim that there is effectively a “digital divide” noticeable in certain areas. “There are a lot of folks in rural areas or in poorer areas who don’t have very good Internet access. It’s bad for their education. It’s bad for their economic development. It’s bad for health care. We really are looking at how we can bring Internet access more effectively to those segments of our society.”

Access to the internet is crucial in the modern age, and African families and schools who lack reliable internet access struggle to keep up. By finding ways to boost internet participation throughout Africa, the next generation of Africans will have access to the informational, educational and business benefits that the internet provides, and more young Africans will have the opportunity to bridge the “digital divide” and take part to the global marketplace of both goods and ideas.