A small rural community in Limpopo could be the site of the next telecommunications revolution in South Africa.
Trials of innovative reception and relay equipment that uses neglected television broadcasting frequencies, dubbed TV white spaces, are expected to begin early in 2012. The favoured locations for the tests are a rural site in Limpopo as well as an urban suburb in Pretoria. If the trials are successful, they could open the way for the delivery of low-cost broadband internet services to rural communities throughout the country – and create a new and potentially lucrative telecommunications market.
The Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) is discussing the project with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and is expected to apply soon for permission to conduct the trials. If the Meraka trials show that the equipment using TV white spaces works efficiently and, most importantly, that it does not interfere with normal television broadcasts, Icasa will come under strong pressure to allow these frequencies to be used for telecommunications services.
The outcome of the tests will be keenly watched by local telecommunications equipment suppliers, service providers and lobby groups as well as myriad internet companies. All these organisations are hoping that the TV white spaces spectrum, currently controlled by television broadcasters, will be opened to other users. Not surprisingly, local television broadcasters, wary of possible interference with their transmissions and eager to safeguard frequency spectrum required for future services, will also be paying close attention.
Meraka’s request to conduct TV white spaces trials is likely to get a good reception from Icasa. The communications regulator is keen to improve the efficiency of the use of broadcasting frequencies in South Africa. Icasa councillor William Stucke says the organisation has already begun examining the potential of TV white spaces technology. The traditional method of allocating a single broadcasting licence for a specific range of frequencies, covering a particular geographic area, is no longer efficient, he says.
“This model for managing spectrum has not changed for 70 years. It’s the same principle all over the world and it’s not a very efficient principle,” says Stucke. He points out that recent advances in telecommunications technology not only enable a greater volume of data traffic to be transmitted across a narrower range of frequencies, but also allow multiple users to operate within the same spectrum without impairing each others’ services.
TV white spaces technology makes use of the ‘guard bands’ on the outer ranges of each television broadcaster’s analogue transmission spectrum (they appear as white ‘snow’ when you tune your television set in to them). These VHF and UHF frequencies were left vacant when broadcast licences were first granted to ensure there was no interference between different transmissions. They now represent a substantial under-used resource that can be exploited, using emerging technology, for a wide variety of applications. With demand for broadcasting spectrum soaring, driven by the boom in wireless communications and the rapid growth of internet data traffic, the TV white spaces frequencies are becoming increasingly attractive.
Telecommunications activist Steve Song argues that the TV white spaces frequencies are national resources that can be used to deliver urgently needed broadband internet facilities to rural areas. “These broadcast frequencies, which cover large parts of the country, are ideally suited to providing telecommunications services to rural areas where there is little traditional infrastructure,” he says. Song, founder of wireless technology company Village Telco, adds that television broadcasters don’t need to be deprived of the use of the TV white spaces spectrum. “The regulator could issue secondary licences that would enable small telecommunications operators to use the TV white spaces frequencies, provided they do not interfere with any other transmissions.”
Song points out that the deregulation of the 2.4 GHz spectrum, by communications authorities around the world, opened the way for the emergence of the vast and diverse WiFi industry. Opening the TV white spaces spectrum, in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, could trigger the rise of another lucrative and influential sector of the telecommunications industry, he claims. “More than a billion WiFi chip sets are expected to be shipped in 2012. Nobody anticipated the size and diversity of this sector when small amounts of unlicenced spectrum were opened up to the public 25 years ago.” The commercial application of TV white spaces spectrum, which operates at lower frequencies than WiFi and can transmit further and more easily through obstacles such as buildings, has already been tagged ‘super-WiFi’ or ‘White-Fi’ by some telecommunications industry analysts.
Anriette Esterhuysen, director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), adds that TV white spaces technology is ideally suited to the provision of internet services in rural Africa. Not only do television broadcast frequencies cover enormous geographic areas, but in Africa, there are very few broadcasters and therefore fewer opportunities for interference between different transmissions, she says. APC’s call for the deregulation of the TV white spaces spectrum is part of its wider campaign aimed at ensuring free and open internet access for all people in South Africa.
Meraka will not be short of willing helpers when it starts setting up its TV white spaces trial. The universities of Pretoria and the Witwatersrand are likely candidates. Multinational technology giants Google and Microsoft have already expressed interest in the project and appear keen to provide financial and technical support. Lobby groups such as APC and the Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA), which represents around 120 local wireless communications operators, are also likely to lend support. Both organisations are working with Meraka as members of the Open Spectrum Alliance – an affiliation of groups keen to improve spectrum efficiency in South Africa.
Head of Networks and Media Competency at Meraka, Ntsibane Ntlatlapa, says the organisation is talking with several potential partners but will only finalise the project team once it has been granted a licence to conduct the trials. “There is little point in getting other parties involved until we have been given a licence,” says Ntlatlapa. While the urban testing of the TV white spaces equipment will take place near Meraka’s offices in Pretoria, the precise location of the rural test has yet to be decided. “It is our intention to select a site in Limpopo,” notes Ntlatlapa.
If Meraka’s TV white spaces trials are successful, they will probably be extended to incorporate complementary technology such as cognitive radio and geolocation database systems. Cognitive radio systems sense when radio frequencies are being used by other operators and automatically switch their signals to vacant radio bands. This technology is being studied by Pretoria and Wits universities. Geolocation databases enable wireless telecommunications systems to look for available spectrum when operating in specific geographic areas. Telecommunications operators hoping to implement TV white spaces systems in South Africa would need to incorporate at least one of these technologies to ensure their transmissions do not interfere with other wireless services.
UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom recently began trials of TV white spaces technology incorporating geolocation databases. It is expected to move to tests using cognitive radio once these trials are complete. Participants in the UK trials, in Cambridge and the Scottish Isle of Bute, include Microsoft, BT and television broadcasters Sky and the BBC.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US has conducted TV white spaces trials using both cognitive radio and geolocation database technology. It has published specifications for the basic TV white spaces communications protocol (IEEE 802.11af), as well as for systems that incorporate cognitive radio and geolocation database technology (IEEE 802.22). In September 2010, the FCC revised its regulations to make the TV white spaces spectrum available to unlicensed telecommunications operators. However, reaction against the ruling by large US television broadcasters appears to have slowed the adoption of TV white spaces technology.
Henk Kleynhans, WAPA chairman, believes Icasa must move swiftly to open up the TV white spaces spectrum. “The technology works, standards are in place and the spectrum is available,” says Kleynhans. He estimates that commercial systems using TV white spaces technology will be on sale in the US by the end of 2011. Opening the TV white spaces spectrum in South Africa to independent telecommunications operators would boost local innovation, entrepreneurship and skills development, he argues. Kleynhans claims delays in deregulating telecommunications legislation stifled the early adoption of WiFi technology in South Africa and hindered the development of businesses supplying such systems. Such obstacles need to be avoided with the advent of TV white spaces technology, he says.
WAPA is advocating a ‘lite licensing’ approach that would give independent telecommunications operators access to TV white spaces spectrum, without requiring them to apply for their own licences, but ensure that standards are in place to avoid interference between transmissions.
If Meraka’s trials are successful, calls for the opening of the TV white spaces spectrum will undoubtedly increase. Icasa may well be sympathetic to such demands. However, the bugbear is likely to be the speed of change. Icasa states that changes to telecommunications regulations require a lengthy statutory public consultation process. New regulations allowing broader use of the TV white spaces spectrum may not be in place until 2015. Such delays are unlikely to appease WAPA and its allies. Calls for greater urgency will increase in frequency and volume.