Microsoft follows Google into South Africa to prove white space broadband potential

Microsoft(s msft) has launched a new trial of so-called white space broadband in the northern South African province of Limpopo. This adds to Microsoft’s existing “4Afrika” white space trials in Kenya and Tanzania, and Google(s goog)’s similar program in Cape Town, at the other end of South Africa.
White space broadband is an experimental technology that might end up bringing connectivity into rural and poor urban areas around the world – as long as local governments play ball by allowing the re-use of the relevant radio spectrum. This is one of the main drivers behind Microsoft and Google’s pilots in Africa: to lobby the authorities by proving the benefits of white space broadband.

Buffer zones

The technology works by using the buffer zones or “white spaces” between TV channels in order to carry data. These buffers exist to stop the TV channels from interfering with one another – don’t forget that TV is broadcast at pretty high power. Because white space broadband can be transmitted at relatively low power, the idea is that it can exploit these buffer zones without itself interfering with the surrounding broadcasts.
Microsoft and Google are, however, doing slightly different things in their trials. Google’s involvement extends mainly to its new spectrum database, which is a way of telling white space broadband client devices which frequencies are available for exploitation and where – this is why that trial is taking place in highly-developed and mountainous Cape Town, where the complexity of the local TV broadcast setup provides a great worst-case scenario for technical testing purposes.
Microsoft, on the other hand, is funding trials that demonstrate the commercial viability of white space broadband – the South African government wants 80 percent of its citizens to have broadband access by 2020, and Microsoft wants to prove that white space is the way to go.

Country by country

The Limpopo trial, which aims to connect local schools, is similar to Microsoft’s Kenyan pilot, in that it targets very rural areas that may not even be on the electricity grid (the Tanzanian pilot was more urban, dealing with high-density, low-income areas). The Limpopo pilot involves solar-powered base stations and – Microsoft being Microsoft – each school also gets a range of Windows tablets for pupils, laptops and training for teachers, projectors and teaching materials.
Now, about that commercial viability. According to a ZDNet report, Microsoft is predicting white space connectivity of up to 4Mbps at a cost of between 20-50 rand ($2.04-$5.10) a month. As regular broadband at speeds up around 1Mbps cost ten times as much, that’s nothing to be sneezed at (although there are signs that South Africa’s ludicrously overpriced and underspecced broadband may soon improve, thanks to the breaking-up of Telkom’s monopoly).
It doesn’t appear that what Microsoft is doing in Limpopo Province is that much different from what it already demonstrated in Kenya this year. What’s important, though, is for the company to convince the South African regulators to allow the legal use of TV white spaces for broadband purposes, and that means setting up a local pilot. We can no doubt expect more of these in other African countries in the coming year or two.
In the end, for both Google and Microsoft this all comes down to wanting to spread connectivity, and therefore those companies’ addressable markets. That said, this connectivity will also have major benefits for the economies of the countries concerned, so everyone should do well out of it.