Why emerging markets need smart internet policies

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has released its latest study into, well, the affordability of internet access. The study shows how big the challenge is on that front in emerging markets – for over two billion people there, fixed-line broadband costs on average 40 percent of their monthly income, and mobile broadband costs on average 10 percent of their monthly income.

The United Nations’ “affordability target” for internet access is five percent of monthly income, so there’s clearly a ways to go in many developing countries. Almost 60 percent of global households are still unconnected and, unsurprisingly, those who can’t afford to get online tend to be poor, in rural communities and/or women. As my colleague Biz Carson wrote the other day, women are being left behind in the related smartphone adoption stakes too.

A4AI comprises players from [company]Google[/company] and the World Wide Web Foundation to the international development departments of the U.S. and U.K., and its report — unveiled Wednesday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona — takes into account drivers of connectivity such as electrification and policy. As A4AI executive director Sonia Jorge pointed out quite reasonably in a statement, those who are unable to afford internet access are quite often those who most need it to improve their lot.

Still, she noted, good national “policies and principles” can make a big difference. For example, the A4AI report praised Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru for having solid infrastructure rollout plans. Costa Rica, which topped the affordability rankings of 51 emerging and developing economies, has been working to provide universal access since 2009.

According to A4AI, the policy areas that need attention include national broadband plans, competition-friendly environments (remember, many of these countries still have powerful telecoms monopolies), good spectrum allocation policy, the promotion of infrastructure-sharing, and “widespread public access through libraries, schools, and other community venues.” Strong political leadership helps, they added.

This is very much a long-term game. In the meantime, we have initiatives such as Google’s Loon, which is not quite ready yet, and [company]Facebook[/company]’s Internet.org, which is out there but somewhat divisive, both in terms of its impact on carriers and its threat to net neutrality. Both come with a still-fuzzy commercial imperative; from a societal standpoint, it is surely healthier for governments in emerging markets to foster more neutral and competitive alternatives.

White space broadband, which Google and [company]Microsoft[/company] have both been championing, could provide part of the solution (particularly in rural areas), but again it’s being held back by sluggish policy-making. Very few countries have authorized its use thus far, due to concerns over its impact on the broadcasting industry – the technology uses the spectral gaps between TV stations, though it’s now proven that it can avoid interference – and perhaps its threat to telecoms monopolies as well. Again, smarter government can make all the difference.

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White space broadband gets green light in UK

The British telecoms regulator Ofcom has formally approved the deployment of white-space broadband technology in the U.K., following trials.

White space broadband uses the empty buffer zones that are placed between TV channels to stop them bleeding into one another. The broadband technology glues together these patches of spectrum and, as pilots around the world have shown, it can do so without interfering with the TV transmissions. This is achieved through the use of databases that tell the client device which spectrum it can use in which location and at which time.

Ofcom said on Thursday that it hopes the technology can be deployed in the U.K. by the end of this year.

“This decision helps ensure the U.K. takes a leading role in the development of innovative new wireless technology,” acting Ofcom CEO Steve Unger said in a statement. “It is also an important step in helping the U.K.’s wireless infrastructure evolve effectively and efficiently.”

White space technology may work, but few countries have thus far authorized its use due to concerns over interference. The only commercial deployment I have so far seen was that of a student-oriented network in Ghana, with [company]Microsoft[/company]’s involvement, which went live last month after an on-campus pilot.

The lack of widespread regulatory movement on white space broadband has already forced some in the industry to look to different spectrum for supporting their new internet-of-things networks. That’s a pity, as it works very well for sensor networks, and indeed it’s being tested out in the U.K. for flood defenses and smart city webcams and sensors.

Apart from that, the technology is also good at delivering web access over long distances and into buildings — just like TV broadcasts, funnily enough — and therefore has a lot of potential for both urban and rural broadband provision. As I saw for myself at a [company]Google[/company] trial in my native Cape Town, it’s no fiber competitor but it can make a real difference in areas where fixed-line providers are loath to roll out decent infrastructure.

Google hails white space broadband success as it wraps up Cape Town trial

Google(s goog) has declared a white space broadband trial in Cape Town, in which it participated, a resounding success. The firm said on Friday that the 6-month trial, which involved running wireless broadband in the fragmented buffer zones between chunks of TV spectrum, did not interfere with the complex TV broadcast set-up in the city. I went to see the pilot in June and am delighted to learn that the network will stay operational for the schools that have been using it, even though the trial is over. Similar experiments are taking place around the world.