The use of TV white spaces, which are unassigned frequencies that have a broader reach than that of conventional Wi-Fi, could democratize broadband access in developing countries, where billions remain unconnected. The global development potential of TV white spaces and ways to better implement and utilize these networks were among the main takeaways from the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance conference held in Manila, Philippines, this month.
A global group made up of different key players from the technology, media and public sectors, the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance describes itself as a technology-neutral organization that pushes for increased access to unused radio spectrum by focusing on policy and regulatory advocacy.
In a keynote speech, Richard Thanki, a University of Southampton’s Institute of Complex Systems Simulation doctorate student who discussed his modeling exercises on broadband deployment projects that include, but are not limited to, TV white spaces, said that unused TV airwaves “hold the promise of providing connectivity to people who have so far been excluded by current high-cost connection technologies.”
To date, around 3 billion people use the Internet. While bringing the next billion users online is an important issue for both the technology industry and development community, unaffordability remains the primary barrier to connectivity for a big segment — 2 billion to 2.6 billion, according to Thanki — of the off-the-grid population. Existing methods of delivering broadband — fixed, mobile and satellite — also remain costly.
TV white spaces hold special potential in disaster situations where data connections may be cut off completely. For example, the pilot testing of TV white spaces in Bohol, an island in central Philippines, eased communication among those coordinating relief efforts in the wake of both the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the island and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Today, TV white space deployment in the Philippines is said to be the most extensive in Asia.
But industry experts stress difficulty achieving this milestone and that more needs to be done to facilitate connectivity for remote and marginalized communities, particularly in disaster situations.
“The problem we had at that point was that people did not understand that communications was a priority,” Bettina Quimson, deputy executive director of the Department of Science and Technology’s information and communications technology body, said. “In this instance, the telecommunications companies themselves were victims. We had a hard time; priorities then were medicine and food.”
African nations are beginning to experience some of the advantages of TV white spaces over traditional Wi-Fi networks. Mihayo Wilmore, managing partner of Tanzania’s UhuruOne, which has the largest Wi-Fi mesh network in eastern sub-Saharan Africa, said that for TV white spaces, “no matter how hard it rains, there will always be an Internet connection.”
“Imagine you’re sending an ultrasound to someone who needs critical help amid a sandstorm in Botswana,” he said.
For Geoffrey Seleka, executive director of the Botswana Innovation Hub, there was no need to imagine the scenario. Earlier this year, BIH, together with partners like Microsoft, the U.S. Agency for International Development and NetHope, launched Project Kgolagano, a telemedicine service over a TV white spaces network. It was, according to Seleka, a “low-cost, high-impact innovation” that delivered an indispensable service to those who might otherwise not be able to access it.
But TV white spaces are useful in both emergency and everyday situations. The next step for BIH, Seleka said, would be to focus on education, especially in Botswana’s rural areas.
“Teachers don’t want to be deployed in those areas because they’re left out through the digital divide,” he said.
Basheerhamad Shadrach, Asia regional coordinator for the Alliance for Affordable Internet, echoed the sentiment.
“Today [the issue of broadband access] is innovation-centered and industry-centered, but it needs to be more people-centered,” he said.
A space for different stakeholders to fill
Microsoft, one of the founding members of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, is perhaps the most prominent player in the TV white spaces arena, having partially developed the technology through Microsoft Research. But development partners also have a role to play in the adoption of the technology in poorer countries.
Sibesh Bhattacharya, ICT specialist from the Asian Development Bank, noted that the multilateral financial institution’s emphasis on ICT has been quite recent.
“Last year we recognized ICT as a key sector in our portfolio,” he said. “Before that it was part of transport and was not given much importance.”
In spurring investments for ICT infrastructure, ADB mostly turns to the private sector for co-financing. But in the Pacific islands, where private sector activity is limited and investors do not have too many incentives to enter markets, “that is not happening,” according to Bhattacharya. The digital divide in countries like Palau, Solomon Islands and Samoa is consequently large — a problem that ADB is addressing together with the World Bank.
“Most of the time we find that it’s not financially viable [for the private sector], but doing it would have [a] major economic impact on those countries,” Bhattacharya said.
Beyond financial assistance
Financing is not the only crucial component of expanding TV white space usage. Uncertainty about the regulatory environment also complicates the goal of greater broadband access, according to Rob Henley, partner at Prescient, which raises capital for emerging markets, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We find it quite hard to do very, very early-stage investments,” Henley said, adding that Africa, for some investors, is still considered a risky proposition. “Clarity is so important. You’ve got to be flexible, but there needs to be as little uncertainty as possible. For investment purposes, the more clarity, the better it is.”
Antonio Garcia Zaballos, lead specialist from the Inter-American Development Bank, noted that IDB thinks of broadband “as a whole ecosystem,” adding that infrastructure is only one facet of what he calls a “holistic plan” for broadband access that should take into account cost-effectiveness and net neutrality, among other factors. Financing and technical assistance are the primary tools that IDB uses to support broadband projects in Latin America.
Meanwhile, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., which provides debt financing in developing countries where it may not be readily available, is generally geared toward projects that have both a development impact and a viable business plan.
“What I found over the years is that financing is definitely necessary, but it’s not sufficient to get the project going and ensure that it becomes a success,” OPIC Managing Director Tracey Webb said. “An ecosystem and a dedicated entrepreneur are needed.”
Bhattacharya also pointed out that the completion of a project does not necessarily translate to success. Since regular maintenance is needed to keep networks in good shape, local capacity, which is sometimes lacking, is important.
Wilmore, meanwhile, focused on the education needed to complement increased access — a gap that is often overlooked.
“When we say connecting the unconnected, it’s not just providing broadband, but also providing the skill set for them to be able to compete,” Wilmore said, adding that the problem is not unique to Tanzania. “You might have someone who is a CPA [certified public accountant] … but who will struggle for four hours trying to attach a file because the last time they did it was six months ago.”
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