Opening TV white spaces for access

As in many other middle-income countries, large socioeconomic disparities separate urban and rural areas in South Africa — as of 2015, rural households earned around 45% of what urban households earned on average. However, due in part to its legacy with apartheid and the racialised nature of economic disparities in the country, rural poverty in the country has been characterised as extreme and exceptional in the intersectionality of race, geography, and poverty. Indeed, these disparities translate into other aspects of life: in 2018 household surveys, Black African and female-headed households had the lowest rates of mobile phone ownership in the country.

While over 95% of South Africans are covered by a mobile broadband network, less than half of rural households are connected to the internet (as of 2017); compare this with urban areas, where nearly 70% of the population is online. This disparity in connectivity has knock-on consequences, including an urban-rural gap in financial inclusion.

In response to this connectivity gap and to the poor quality of service available in rural and remote areas, the country’s regulator, ICASA, has been proactive in supporting the launch of smaller, local networks to provide coverage in these areas. However, the ability of these networks to provide coverage is greatly defined by the means by which these networks offer internet access. With limited access to spectrum allowances, such networks may be forced to use unlicensed bandwidths with smaller ranges or other inferior technologies to provide coverage. The introduction of TV White Space technology has enormous potential to help overcome the digital divide in South Africa by offering a new tool to these networks.

TV White Space (TVWS) refers to unused frequency bands (buffer bands) between two frequency bands allocated for broadcasting services. Historically, these channels have been intentionally kept vacant to prevent possible interference with the two adjacent TV channels. Rapid developments in TVWS technology have enabled ISPs to use this scarce resource to provide broadband internet services, without interfering with broadcasting services. To prevent interference, the spectrum (i.e., the invisible radio frequencies that signals travel over) is run by the geolocation database to identify unassigned frequencies between two adjacent TV channels. Then, the TV White Space device interacts with this database to identify which frequencies can be used safely.

TVWS brings economic and technical benefits. This technology creates efficiency in lower frequency bands. At these lower bands, radio waves are able to extend further — up to 10 kilometres and over rugged and forested terrain — without the need of tall towers and is called “Super WiFi” because of its similarity with license-exempt WiFi technology. Additionally, the speed TVWS delivers is comparable to broadband internet services. Thanks to competition among a growing number of TVWS equipment providers, infrastructure costs are very competitive. Finally, deployment of infrastructure is relatively simple and does not require road excavations or any other physical disruptions.

In 2013, the first trials of TVWS technology began in Cape Town and Limpopo Province. In the first trial, broadband internet services were provided to 10 schools in Cape Town. The results were quite promising and proved that it is possible to provide broadband internet services with speeds of up to 12 mbps and coverage of 6.5 kilometres without harmful interference. The trial also showed that even in Cape Town, where a greater potential for interference exists, there is adequate spectrum for TVWS use. Rural areas have even more potential as there is usually more vacant spectrum.

The success of the trials led ICASA to regulate TVWS. In this context, ICASA published its Position Paper on Framework for Dynamic and Opportunistic Spectrum Management in April 2017, following a series of consultation processes that were held beginning in 2015. In March 2018, ICASA issued a document regulating the use of TVWS. The main objective of this regulation is to provide affordable broadband services to people in unserved and underserved areas. The regulation also aims to create a regulatory framework to authorise the use of dynamic spectrum assignment for TVWS, which would enable efficient and effective use of spectrum. It sets out the conditions for the operation of services and sets the standards for the operation of White Space Devices. This regulation approves the use of frequency bands between 470 MHz and 694 MHz, except frequency bands between 606MHz – 614Mhz, which are allocated for radio astronomy. The regulation also creates the mechanisms to protect primary users from harmful interference in frequency bands assigned to them.

Despite the regulatory framework established by this regulation, secondary regulations have not yet been completed and as a result, TVWS internet access is not yet fully operational in South Africa. ICASA launched a public consultation process to discuss the Draft Framework to Qualify to Operate a Secondary Geo-location Spectrum Database in February 2020. With the completion of all secondary regulations, the regulatory framework will be ready for the launch of internet connectivity through TVWS.

Africopany, a South African telecom start-up company, obtained a license in October 2018 to trial this technology to roll out broadband services to rural communities. It intends to serve 85,000 people and 50 schools. Another project led by Adaptrum aims to improve internet access in rural areas in South Africa, and has received funding from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency — a fact that demonstrates the relevance of the technology to provide affordable internet.

Internet access offers people in rural communities access to crucial services, from communication to online banking, from shopping to accessing health services. But the most important one for girls and youth is the opportunity to access education and information, find employment and become entrepreneurs. However, these resources and opportunities are not possible without access to broadband internet services. Deploying TVWS and providing broadband internet services changes the cost of internet access in rural areas, making it more sustainable for affordable broadband in rural and remote areas of South Africa. This access could help reverse some of the disparities that today run in parallel along lines of employment, financial inclusion, and educational attainment. Though TVWS is not yet fully operational in South Africa, the regulation itself and steps made towards the implementation and use of TVWS technology is an important milestone and offers a model for other countries facing similarly stubborn urban-rural divides.