TV white space: The 'most powerful development tool?'

The Solar Cyber is a shipping container turned into an internet shop with computers that run by tapping the broadcast power of “white spaces.” Photo by: Mawingu

Imagine if there were a way to bring fast, cheap and reliable internet access to people living in remote parts of the developing world without laying a single cable, with the whole system powered by the sun.

Now, thanks to a pioneering approach to broadband delivery that utilizes TV white spaces — or unused TV band spectrum — this vision is fast becoming a reality in Kenya through the work of Mawingu Networks.  

Mawingu has been operating a pilot TVWS network in Kenya since 2013, but now plans to scale up its efforts thanks to a $4.1 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the U.S. government’s development finance institution.

Devex spoke to Malcolm Brew, co-founder of Mawingu, to find out how TV white space works and to learn more about its potential impact in Kenya and beyond.

What are TV white spaces?

TVWS refers to the gaps, or white spaces, found between TV channels, Brew explained. These are spaces of unused spectrum that TV networks place in between their channels in order to protect broadcasts from interference. They are also known as “guard bands.” Over the past decade, hardware vendors have been busy developing white space devices that can detect and then utilize these unused gaps in the spectrum to transmit digital broadband signal over long distances and provide wireless broadband internet access.

One of the major barriers to regulator’s approval of TVWS technology was the fear that primary licensed TV broadcasters’ transmissions would be interrupted by TVWS devices seeking available frequencies. To ensure this doesn’t happen, the spectrum is managed by a geolocation database, which is run by the telecommunications regulator in each country to identify unassigned frequencies between broadcast television channels. The white space device then communicates with this database to check which frequencies are safe to use.

How is TVWS different from Wi-Fi?

TVWS and Wi-Fi operate at different frequencies. Wi-Fi operates at a high “microwave” frequency at 2.4 gigahertz. This means the wavelengths are small and tend to be absorbed or reflected by objects they encounter, hence Wi-Fi typically only covers a range of approximately 30 to 50 meters and has trouble passing through barriers such as walls and trees.

TVWS, on the other hand, operates at a much lower frequency and has longer wavelengths that can easily travel up to 10 kilometers. Like TV signals, TVWS can penetrate obstacles such as concrete walls and vegetation, even bending over hill tops, making them a good option to serve rural communities.

What is the history of TVWS, and where are we now?

TVWS took off in the U.S. in 2008 after the Federal Communications Commission voted to reallocate unlicensed white space spectrum for public use. This was partly due to the fact that television had largely switched to digital broadcasting, which requires far less space between channels.

According to Brew, TVWS has now “passed the tipping point” with regulators in the U.K., Singapore and Canada also freeing up white space  — and many other countries currently conducting TVWS trials.

For Brew, this represents a “democratizing” of the spectrum, since white spaces are unlicensed; in the past, broadcasters effectively owned these spaces. TVWS also maximizes the spectrum’s efficiency — since more spectrum is being used — and makes room for innovation in new services, according to Brew.

How does Mawingu fit in?

Mawingu started piloting TVWS in Kenya in 2013 in response to the fact that approximately 4 billion people worldwide do not have affordable access to the internet. Those living in poor, remote areas are least likely to get online due to the high costs associated with delivering traditional broadband.

Three passionate development workers, Joakim Vince, Malcolm Brew and Maggie Hobbs, set up Mawingu to see whether TVWS could offer an affordable alternative.  They secured funding from Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative and the U.S. Agency for International Development to fund the pilot.

What is Mawingu’s model?

Mawingu, which means “cloud” in Swahili, sets up solar-powered wireless internet stations, or “hot spots,” across rural Kenya. These hot spots utilize a combination of fiber optics, high-speed microwave and TVWS radios. Mawingu piggybacks on existing fiber optic cables belonging to major telecom providers, and then extends its own services from their fiber end points.

The idea is to set up enough hot spots so that people can be nomadic and roam from hot spot to hot spot without needing to rely on costly and complex data bundles for internet access offered by mobile phone networks.

The mobile telephone boom, which swept across Africa 15 years ago, was dominated by the pay as you go model and was mainly used to make calls, Brew explained. Now, users are more interested in data packages, especially since platforms such as Skype and WhatsApp offer Wi-Fi powered call and messaging services.

While mobile operators do offer 3G and 4G mobile internet connections, these are very expensive. This is where Mawingu comes in and offers significantly cheaper data packages. It can do this because the TVWS network is unassigned, and so there is no monopoly since the spectrum is unlicensed.

Mawingu also cuts costs by powering its TV base station and mast sites using solar panels; this makes them cheap to install and run compared with traditional telecom stations, which run on electricity and require costly backup diesel generators. By having a “reliable, clean and cheap” solar energy supply, Brew estimated TVWS base stations cost “a hundredth of the price” to construct and operate compared with mobile telephone stations.

What does Mawingu offer customers?

Mawingu customers buy weekly or monthly internet bundles that enable them to access any of Mawingu’s hot spots with a Wi-Fi enabled device.

Bundles cost $1 per week, which gives users 500 megabytes of data, or $3 a month for 2 gigabytes of data. Brew said this is much cheaper than their competitors, who charge approximately $10 per month for the same amount of data. To put this into context, Brew said most Mawingu customers earned less than the minimum wage, which is approximately $3 a day.

The organization currently has hot spots in Laikipia and Meru counties, but plan to add an additional 4,000 over the next 12 months as part of their scale up. 

Mawingu prides itself on providing its customers with unlimited connectivity, although it does limit download speed once consumers have reached the limits of their data package. This differentiates them from mobile operators who frequently cut off service altogether.

“What we’ve done is offer a data bundle where if you go over the limit we won’t cut you off, we just slow it down — so you can still send emails, use Skype, check your bank account and tweet a message, you just can’t watch YouTube,” Brew said.

What potential is there for TVWS in Kenya?

Currently between 10 to 15 percent of Kenyans have regular access to the internet and are able to use it in their daily lives. Mawingu aims to double that percentage over the next 36 months. This could potentially grow Kenya’s gross domestic product by more than 2 percent, Brew said. If Mawingu hits its targets, an additional 3 million to 4 million people could be online by 2020.

The internet has the potential to be transformational because of the way it is used in countries such as Kenya, Brew added.

“In developed markets, the internet is used by a lot of kids and predominantly it’s all about social media,” he said. “However, in rural Africa, young people are using it differently, asking how do I grow better tomatoes, what price can I get for my maize? Rather than using it in a consumptive way, by watching Netflix for example, it is being used in a productive way — as a tool to help themselves get ahead.”

What are the challenges for TVWS?

Brew is confident TVWS technology is here to stay. However, there are still challenges ahead. The first one is around regulation: “This technology is ready now, but it’s misunderstood … regulators haven’t all embraced TVWS, and regulatory policy needs to catch up,” he said.

A second challenge is price. Brew said that while the technology is currently “not cheap enough,” for commercial retailers to use, he is confident it will be competitive within the next 12 months. “We need to hang on a bit longer to see commodity-style pricing,” he said.

What does the future hold for TVWS in Kenya and beyond?

TVWS has the potential to give millions of Kenyans access to the internet, which Brew considers “the most powerful development tool man has made.” But it won’t just stop at Kenya; he said other countries are interested in the Mawingu model. A company in India called AirJaldi, for example, is delivering a similar service with great success.

He also sees TVWS as a crucial part of the “big data” revolution. Brew explained that by connecting more people to the internet, more data can be gathered and analyzed, which in turn can be used to generate more accurate weather forecasts or monitor outbreaks of disease, for example.

Brew thinks this is all part of the “internet of things” where cheap sensors can monitor and gather data on weather or public health data and then push the information into the cloud. 

“Having all this data in one place means we can run analytics and see trends and patterns emerging, which can help us start to predict things before they happen,” he said.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

Join the Discussion