Forget drones: Microsoft’s plan to bring the internet to the world is all about TV

Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in access to the internet.
Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in access to the internet.
Image: Quartz
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Google will spend between $1 billion and $3 billion to put 180 satellites in orbit, from where the company can beam the internet down to unconnected parts of the world, the Wall Street Journal reported this morning. That’s in addition to Google’s other high-tech internet missionaries: balloons floating high in the sky and drones circling overhead. Facebook also has lofty ambitions.

But there may be a simpler way to spread connectivity: Television white space. TV is broadcast using the electro-magnetic spectrum—as is radio, communications and cell phone signal. Each television channel owns one tiny slice of that spectrum, which is regulated by governments. But there are gaps between channels to prevent one from interfering with the next. As the world’s thirst for wireless technologies grows, government regulators are looking at unused broadcast spectrum as a way to ease congestion and spur innovation.

The idea may sound less glamorous than drones, satellites and balloons, but it’s an area where African countries are leading the way, with impressive results. And it has attracted a lot of attention ever since 2010, when the United States’ Federal Communications Commission announced that white space would be available license-free.

That spurred companies big and small to run pilot programs testing whether the system could be used to bring broadband access to rural American communities that had made do with dial-up or satellite connections. Microsoft was one of the firms that ran a pilot program at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

For the past year, Microsoft has also been experimenting in Africa, and the results have been encouraging, Paul Garnett, Microsoft’s head of technology policy, tells HumanIPO, a Nairobi tech blog.

Microsoft has made less noise than its counterparts about its efforts to provide internet access to remote users in the developing world. Launched last year, Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative is more limited in scope than programs touted by Google or Facebook, which aim to take the web to the world. Microsoft’s focus, as the name suggests, is just Africa. But that doesn’t mean Microsoft’s program is less ambitious: the potential for change on that continent is arguably much greater, because Africa lags far behind the rest of world when it comes to internet access, as the map above shows.

Pilot projects in Kenya have shown the potential of the broadcast spectrum technology, Garnett says:

For providers, the technology lowers the cost of running base stations to transmit and receive data. These cost-savings are then passed on to the consumer. Through our pilot projects we have been able to deliver broadband access for under US$5 per month, per user, on average. In many underserved rural and low-income areas where people are earning only US$500 per year, this is the most affordable access they can receive, much more than the expensive plans offered by mobile service providers.

For the sake of comparison with the cost of internet that comes over mobile networks: Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest mobile operator, offers a USB dongle with 500 MB of data (valid for 90 days) for just under $6.

Microsoft has only tested white space broadband in a few local areas, but Garnett says there is no reason that it can’t spread further:

It is definitely scalable. In Kenya for example, the technology is servicing a large area, providing access to an entire community – schools, municipal buildings, and healthcare service providers. University campuses often make the most sense in terms of need, but TV white spaces are able to travel long distances over any terrain. The solar-powered base stations in Kenya have a range of up to 13km. On the university campuses in Koforidua Ghana, electricity supply is well established, so we probably don’t need to rely on solar panels. But they can be used to reach further areas away from the campus, for example hostels and campus groups. In the Limpopo, South Africa, we are also looking at the feasibility of solar.

A hurdle to broader adoption is regulation, Garnett says, which in many countries isn’t set up to allow the use of white space by broadband providers. But Garnett is optimistic, and notes that the successes in Africa have informed the regulatory process in the UK, Canada and Singapore: “This is just another example of how Africa can accelerate technology for the world, which is the belief on which the 4Afrika Initiative is built. Africa no longer needs to take what is given by the developed markets, so it’s a bit of reversal.”