In the whole of Africa, just 15.6 percent of residents are connected to the internet, which is under half of the world average. It’s also home to vast, inhospitable landscapes that are economically inviable to crisscross with fiber. All of that being said, nearly a sixth of the globe’s population resides on the continent, representing a monumental opportunity for something — anything — to connect the next billion people. As it turns out, there are actions presently ongoing to make a significant mark in the course of history. Google, Microsoft, Carlson Wireless, Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET) and a host of other powerful entities are collaborating to bring high-speed internet to an underserved continent via TV white spaces — a low-cost, highly adaptable technology that’s poised to explode. For now, Cape Town, South Africa, is acting as a proving ground for what will eventually be a far larger experiment. The core goal is actually quite simple: to beam hope to a disconnected society, with unused bands between TV channels acting as the medium.
For the myriad companies involved, simply educating consumers on how TV white spaces (TVWS) work is a challenge. I’d argue that the terminology (and in turn, branding) could use a bit of work, but the gist is perfectly comprehensible. As it stands, television broadcasts travel over predefined frequencies, which can essentially be envisioned as bowling lanes positioned side by side. In practice, broadcasters only use every other lane to transmit, with the lanes betwixt left open as a buffer. From a broadcasting point of view, the worst-case scenario involves the bleeding of one channel into another — hence, a buffer channel. To continue the analogy, it’s certainly possible to imagine a pitiful bowler hurling a ball into the lane beside him, but it’d be practically impossible for him to accidentally toss it two lanes over.
Regardless of whether a nation broadcasts using analog (as in South Africa’s case) or digital (as is happening in the United States), the description remains valid. The overarching goal of the White Spaces Coalition — which was formed in 2007 by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, EarthLink and Samsung Electro-Mechanics — was to make use of the buffer channels for something greater. In other words, they want to turn lanes of broadcasting security blankets into active channels for wireless internet distribution. In the case of the Cape Town trial, Google was responsible for providing the funding and guidance, while Carlson Wireless provided the hardware and TENET executed on the ground.
As it turns out, the biggest hurdle isn’t a philosophical one — it’s a mathematical one. TV broadcasters aren’t fond of allowing any other wireless service to encroach on their transmissions. If a rival broadcaster (or, indeed, an internet connection served by a TVWS base station) were to transmit in an immediately adjacent channel using too much power, interference and visual degradation would occur. So, in order for TV white spaces to ever be taken seriously, those in favor of pushing it needed a way to definitively show that it could operate without causing quality nightmares for the TV stations next door.
Covering the Cape to continue in Part 2 of this extract.
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