Google Testing Use of TV Spectrum for Internet Access in South Africa

Google is launching a trial in South Africa where it hopes to expand Internet access in rural areas by tapping into unused television broadcasting frequencies.

Back in 2008, Google proposed tapping into unused television broadcasting frequencies called "white spaces" to push Internet access to rural areas in the United States where getting such service was difficult and expensive.

Now Google is proposing a trial white space project in South Africa where the company wants to see if it can use the same idea to bring Internet access to more communities inside the developing nation.

"White spaces are unused channels in the broadcast TV spectrum," wrote Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, the public policy manager for Google South Africa, in a March 25 post on the Blog. "They offer the potential to improve Internet connectivity where they are most needed—in the developing world. Today we're announcing the launch of a trial with ten schools in the Cape Town area, which will receive wireless broadband over a white space network."

One advantage of using white space is that its low frequency signals can travel longer distances than other broadcast signals, wrote Mgwili-Sibanda. "The technology is well suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas."

Google began a white space trial in the United States in 2010 after two years of delays following its initial 2008 announcement of the effort. Google recently began 45 days of collecting public comments through the U.S. Federal Communications Commission about the broadcast spectrum it is proposing for the U.S. part of the project.

In the United States, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of bringing wireless broadband Internet access to underserved communities and individuals across the nation as part of his 2011 State of the Union address. While budget constraints have pushed this topic to the background, it has remained a goal of the administration as well as of the outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The new trial in South Africa will broadcast from three base stations located at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in Tygerberg, Cape Town, sending out wireless broadband to 10 schools in the area, according to Mgwili-Sibanda. "During the trial, we will attempt to show that broadband can be offered over white spaces without interfering with licensed spectrum holders," he said. "To prevent interference with other channels, the network uses Google's spectrum database to determine white space availability."

White space technology is also being tested in the United Kingdom, wrote Mgwili-Sibanda.

Alan Norman, the principal of Google's Access program, told eWEEK in an email reply that the South Africa project is extending the company's work in finding new ways to expand Internet access to the world's most rural and difficult-to-serve regions.

"The South Africa trial aims to demonstrate TV white spaces spectrum can be used to improve last mile access in areas where the Internet is limited or unavailable--a focus for," wrote Norman. "The increased range afforded by low-frequency spectrum can make the economics more viable and lower the cost of connectivity to rural communities with poor infrastructure as well as expand coverage in more populated areas. We hope the results of the trial will drive similar regulatory developments in other countries."

Norman said that the work being done in the United States with the broadcast spectrum database is an important part of the process to use white space in this country. "While services using TV white spaces are just now being developed and it's early to assess the impact, database certification will bring us a step closer to freeing up more spectrum," he wrote.

The TV white spaces are vacant airwaves between TV channels that can power speedy wireless broadband networks. TV airwave signals can travel far and deep—through walls, in fact—making the spectrum well-suited for mobile devices that connect wirelessly to the Web, such as smartphones and tablet computers.

Google, Facebook and other Internet companies covet this spectrum because they want to propagate their Web applications on smartphones, tablets, TVs and any device that will connect to the Internet.

The FCC had preapproved white space use for the public in 2008, but the effort eventually became bogged down.

In September 2010, Google began testing white space use by launching a broadband network using the spectrum at the Hocking Valley Community Hospital in Logan, Ohio. Google helped the hospital outfit first-responder vehicles with the network.

TV broadcasters and wireless microphone makers had opposed freeing up the white space spectrum for Internet transmissions, claiming it would interfere with their broadcast signals and wireless microphones. These groups sued the FCC in 2009 to stop the spectrum from going public.

The TV spectrum move also buoys the FCC's National Broadband Plan designed to facilitate broadband access across the country, especially in rural areas, where access is poor or even totally absent.