In ground-breaking news, the long-awaited TV White Space (TVWS) grant to support an Adaptrum-led project to help improve Internet access to rural areas in South Africa, was made by the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) on 5 August in Durban.
US Consulate General in Durban political and economic chief Hala Rharrit signed the grant on behalf of USTDA, along with Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) executive committee member and Pilot Project Lead, Paul Colmer.
“We are extremely pleased to partner with USTDA to evaluate the viability of TVWS in South Africa. The pilot will benefit our members and ultimately the communities they serve,” said Colmer. “This support from USTDA will be invaluable in bridging the digital divide, which is of critical importance to community upliftment.”
South Africa has been a driving force in TVWS from its early stages and is the first country in Africa to have published a TVWS regulatory framework. Since about 2010, the CSIR Meraka Institute had been working with ICASA, Sentech and others, punting the merits of white space systems. The Meraka Institute developed a sensing technology demonstrator to show the feasibility of the approach. In 2011, Google approached ICASA about implementing white space systems. ICASA introduced them to the Meraka Institute knowing that the required capability was available locally.
The USTDA grant focuses on facilitating export opportunities for US companies in support of sustainable development projects globally. It will fund several TVWS deployments, with the goal of establishing business and deployment models that can be replicated across the country. This project supports Prosper Africa, a US government initiative to substantially increase two-way trade and investment between the US and Africa.
The Adaptrum-led project team comprises a consortium of US and South African partners including Microsoft, International Data Corporation and Project Isizwe. The consortium will collaborate with the grant recipient, WAPA to deploy three TVWS network builds and develop a business plan to help Internet serve providers and their investors understand and take advantage of commercial opportunities with TVWS.
The pilot will help WAPA promote TVWS networks to its wireless internet service provider member companies. The pilot sites will be in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. USTDA has provided $1-million to kick-start the project which was launched in Drummond in the heart of the Valley of a Thousand Hills in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the most difficult terrain to provide reliable radio-based communication services.
The purpose of the initial feasibility study is to demonstrate TVWS as a commercially relevant and optimal solution for connecting rural South Africa. The end result of the feasibility study will be documented into a technical analysis, a financial feasibility and an executive white paper which will show:
- The population density TVWS is best suited to serve.
- The topology best-suited to using TVWS.
- The average revenue per user which can be safely assumed once connectivity is in place.
- The predicted return on investment periods.
Colmer said that from this whitepaper, bankable projects across Southern and Eastern Africa can be developed. This will bring much-needed connectivity investment to the continent by tackling issues such as the cost of infrastructure needed to reach the rural poor.
The key advantage of TVWS deployment is that the signal coverage can reach up to 10 km radius from the base station without the requirement of line-of-sight. This makes it ideal for connecting people living in the rural undulating hills of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, as well as areas in other provinces where there is poor existing backhaul infrastructure. Each TVWS base station will connect at a bandwidth of 20 Mbps to 30 Wi-Fi access points. These will be scattered within walking distance of each citizen of the rural community. The project proposes deploying 1600 such base stations reaching 50 000 hot spots servicing a potential 13-million rural citizens.
The impact would be to provide at least 1 GB of data per person per month at a price of R30 per GB per month. The current cost of data in low income rural areas is about R600 per GB, so the new price would be less than 1/20th of the current price.
The expected coverage of the network will reach 13-million people currently living in 3.5-million dwellings in these areas. Thirty-five percent of these dwellings have access to the internet using a smart phone. The expected number of new subscribers is 1.7-million including some coverage in the hardest to reach, most dispersed, rural unconnected people from the Northern Cape.
The initial one-year feasibility study will include a network build as well as the development of a business plan including financing aspects to help ISPs and their investors understand and take advantage of the commercial opportunity.
The second phase entails expanding the coverage of the commercial TVWS project into KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Free State, North West and the Northern Cape by offering WAPA ISPs the opportunity to leverage the findings and other resources such as financing, developed during the first phase to scale out the solutions.