Picture: 123RF/RAJESH RAJENDRAN NAIR
Picture: 123RF/RAJESH RAJENDRAN NAIR

When the communications regulator issued emergency spectrum to mobile operators to address the demand for connectivity during the lockdown, it opened the door to a new form of connectivity that promises to bring affordable internet to rural areas.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) has allocated temporary emergency radio frequency spectrum to Vodacom, MTN and Telkom. These large bands of spectrum have attracted the most attention, but the allocation included the surprise introduction of a long-awaited technology called TV white spaces (TVWS).

These are unused broadcasting frequencies between TV channels, in the 470MHz-790MHz band, traditionally left as gaps in wireless spectrum to prevent interference between channels. Digital broadcasting allows these frequencies to be used without interference.”

It is potentially a game changer for enabling broadband access in rural areas, in particular, where the broadcasting bands are far less crowded than in towns and cities, and where the frequencies being used are well-suited to longer range wireless coverage in sometimes difficult terrain,” said Charley Lewis, an independent analyst and researcher on ICT policy and regulation.

“Making TVWS spectrum available for a substantially reduced fee makes a significant impact on rural broadband business models. It also makes for far more efficient use across SA of spectrum, which is a limited resource.”

The first TVWS trials began in 2013 in Cape Town, sponsored by Google and led by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Microsoft took part in subsequent trials in Limpopo, and a pilot was run in KwaZulu-Natal, leading to Icasa releasing a discussion document on “dynamic and opportunistic [sic] spectrum management” in 2015. The CSIR administers a geolocation secondary database with which all TVWS projects must connect. These databases provide a register that shows availability and usage of TVWS spectrum.”

“Stakeholder consultation is a slow process at Icasa, with final regulations on TVWS finally seeing the light of day in 2018,” said Lewis. “But, while there have been a number of pre-commercial TVWS trials since then, full rollout of the technology has been delayed by the development of geolocation databases.”

As a result, the allocation of TVWS spectrum last month came as a surprise. Equally surprising was the choice of recipients, who are little known even in the communications industry.

Three applicants, Morai Solutions, Mthinte Communications and Levin Global, were granted spectrum. Levin Global was being acquired by AABA when it was awarded the licence, and the latter intends to set up a TVWS network in the Amathole district in the Eastern Cape, followed by Nelson Mandela Bay.

TVWS is not a magic bullet, but we see it working well with existing technologies
Morai Solutions CEO Tim Shete

“We applied because we’ve always talked about connectivity in the rural areas,” says AABA owner Anthea McCloed. 

“We’ve picked up that, previously, any solution in the rural areas was always a cheap solution with low bandwidth capability; hence people in the rural areas can’t do much with these solutions. We thought this could be an opportunity. We were pleasantly surprised when we were awarded a national licence for TVWS.”

McCloed is keenly aware of the possibility that the validity of the temporary licence will not be extended beyond its initial three months. “It’s a very short time frame, so we looked at a hybrid solution that includes unlicensed band technology. That means if we won’t be able to continue using TVWS, we will be able to continue using that technology to provide broadband to people in rural communities.”

Vusi Ndlovu, CEO of Mthinte, told Business Times that his company had a similar approach to ongoing use of the network it plans to roll out. Mthinte, in 2013, was alleged to have received irregular funding from the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA for rural broadband rollout in that year. Ndlovu pointed Business Times to a 2018 report by the Special Investigations Unit that found Mthinte had met the terms of the funding by setting up 123 ICT access centres in rural areas.

This experience in rural access rollout appears to have been a key factor in receiving a TVWS licence. “It’s an entry into uncharted waters,” said Ndlovu.

“We are rolling out infrastructure initially in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands area, and we are focusing on health, education, farmers, and the public. We are going to host our own e-learning platform. On the health services side there is a huge need for dissemination of information and people need connectivity to access that information. On the public side we are going to be creating Wi-Fi hot-spots all around the municipal area.”

Morai, a small business being incubated by Altron Nexus, was the first of the recipients to announce plans for TVWS rollout, starting with Mthatha and the surrounding rural communities of the Eastern Cape. CEO Tim Shete founded the company in 2008 and restructured it in 2015 to focus on, among other things, broadband connectivity for rural and underserviced areas.

“Morai’s business model is laser-focused on aggressively bringing down the cost to communicate for the underserviced and technologically unreachable rural communities in SA through deploying TVWS,” Shete said. “TVWS is not a magic bullet, but we see it working well with existing technologies, such as fibre backhaul, and other unlicensed technologies such as 5GHz Wi-Fi, to address the connectivity needs of these communities.”

He said that, in hilly regions, TVWS frequencies need up to 10 times fewer access points than current technologies. This means they can serve larger rural areas at lower cost. The TVWS allocation also means that Icasa may be ready to assign the spectrum commercially.

Lewis agreed: “If successful, the Covid-19 TVWS deployments could well be the proving ground for a full-on commercial rollout of TVWS and dynamic spectrum allocation projects in SA.”