London — A joint venture between the ISP Indigo, Microsoft and the Kenyan Government has rolled out a TV White Spaces Proof of Concept in two parts of rural Kenya. This is the one of the first commercial trials of TV White Spaces on the continent. It offers another route through which connectivity can be delivered in rural areas. Russell Southwood spoke to Indigo's Chairman Peter Henderson and Louis Otieno, General Manager, Microsoft East & Southern Africa.
TV White Spaces (or dynamic spectrum, as it is sometimes called) operates in the "guard band" space between different TV spectrum transmissions. It can either operate with equipment that dynamically assigns bandwidth to the user or that has a database look-up table.
Peter Henderson, Indigo went to see Malcolm Brew's TV White Spaces (TVWS) installation on the Isle Bute in Scotland.
What's the connection between Scotland and Kenya? Well, Malcolm Brew used to work in the industry in Kenya and his TVWS pilot has attracted considerable attention. Henderson was knocked out by it:"I was overwhelmed by the distance the signal was travelling and by the speed it delivered. So I went back to Kenya to introduce it."
He met with Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Communications Bitange Ndemo:"He said to me:'Some God has sent you. This is exactly what we need.'" Out of that conversation a Private-Public-Partnership was formed between the Government of Kenya, Indigo and Microsoft.
The proof of concept currently covers Nanyuki (where it was launched on 4 February), where it connects 3 schools and a health care clinic. A community centre is about to be added. Nanyuki is a small trading town where local people go for shopping and the markets:"Some people walk 4 hours there to do their Facebook page."
It is also being rolled out in Kalema in the Rift Valley where it will connect a Government office and schools. Kalema is a lot smaller than Nanyuki, with a single "High Street" at its heart but very much part of a farming community. Henderson says it's about the 3 Cs:"Coverage, cost and content. Is the content relevant?"
The second part of the delivery - devices and content, particularly in schools - is a work in progress. The schools will get refurbished computers. Microsoft is talking to Nokia about apps delivering education content.
The Nanyuki implementation uses a 10 metre mast that transmits 10 kms down a valley from a school to 2 other schools and the health clinic: "The mast can transmit 10 kms in any direction. It uses 400 Mghz UHF frequency, usually assigned to TV transmission. When we tested whether there was any other users of the frequency, the machine flat-lined. This is unlicensed spectrum so there are no spectrum licensing charges to increase overall delivery costs.
So which of the two TVWS technologies does it use?:"It uses dynamically assigned spectrum and one of the benefits for the regulator is that the equipment will dynamically track spectrum. Microsoft and Google (who are working on the TVWS initiative together) have produced the databases. When selecting frequency. It checks out whether there is anything interfering and assigns to avoid interference."
The cost of delivering the bandwidth to the pilot areas has been kept to a minimum:"The Government of Kenya has done deals to get the international leg cheaply and through relationships with the power utility KPLC, we've been able to use their fibre cheaply for the national leg. We're delivering 1 Gbps from Nairobi to Nanyuki for under US$5 a month."
The aim is to deliver a high speed connection not only to Government premises but also to individuals for US$1 a week. The link delivers 18 mbps into Nanyuki and obviously that is contended until there is a larger number of users, it will deliver significant speeds to all users:"We want to create hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs in the rural areas".
The installations are charged by solar power and locals can use surplus power to charge their phones, laptops, tablets or lanterns. One of the ideas is to encourage local entrepreneurs to run a service for charging phones locally.
The TVWS initiative is part of Microsoft's overall 4Africa Initiative which has three legs: 1) Innovation; 2) skills development; and 3) access, covering both bandwidth and affordable smart devices. This TVWS initiative is part of the access leg of the work.
As Louis Otieno explains it:"We have to address the 80% of people in rural areas because the current beneficiaries of Internet access are largely in the urban areas. There's currently not much motivation to roll-out in the rural areas, which is why we chose to focus on dynamic spectrum access."
Without wishing to sound carping, the only drawback I can see is that the Government of Kenya is not yet signing cheques for the services to the schools, health centres and Government offices.
With the devolution of Government under the new constitution, each of the new administrative units will need to be connected to central Government. You will know that this change has become permanent when Government departments (rather than outsiders) are actually paying their way to use the bandwidth being delivered.