TV white space

On September 9, 2016

Microcontent Using TV white space—the unused bandwidth between television channels—Microsoft is working with local Internet provider entrepreneurs around the world to bring broadband connectivity to some of the 4 billion global citizens who are not currently online. In Botswana, Kenya, Colombia, the Philippines, and Jamaica, these projects are helping to get consumers, businesses, schools, community centers, and police stations online for the first time, deliver telemedicine to rural areas, and facilitate disaster relief efforts.

What do a hospital maternity ward in Botswana, a rose farm in Kenya, a rural school in Colombia, a disaster-struck island in the Philippines, and a police station in Jamaica have in common? They are all benefiting from innovative TV white space, Wi-Fi, and other technologies that bring the power of the Internet to communities formerly on the wrong side of the digital divide.

TV white space is the name for unused blocks of the broadcast spectrum that are located between the frequencies assigned to television stations—unused TV channels that can be utilized to create wireless broadband connections over great distances. A growing group of innovative governments and national spectrum regulators have seen the benefits of this technology and are allowing local entrepreneurs and communities to leverage TV white spaces to bring reliable, robust, and affordable Internet connectivity to some of the 4 billion people of the world who do not currently have it.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that one of his dreams is to facilitate the work of those entrepreneurs and help them solve the connectivity challenge without having to wait for big Internet companies to come in and do it for them. Right now, Microsoft is fostering TV white space projects around the globe and changing lives in the process.

Enabling telemedicine in Botswana

The Botswana Innovation Hub, a science and technology organization based in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone, has worked with Microsoft, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), NetHope, and other business partners to launch Project Kgolagano, which provides Internet connectivity and telemedicine services to local hospitals and clinics. This gives patients in rural Botswana access to medical specialists around the nation and around the world.

“There is currently a lack of specialized care in remote hospitals and clinics in Botswana,” says Dr. Geoffrey Seleka, Director of Marketing, ICT, and Registration at the Botswana Innovation Hub. “Through Project Kgolagano, we will be using TV white space technology to provide access to specialized telemedicine applications, where hospitals can send high-resolution patient photographs back to Gaborone and Philadelphia for a more accurate diagnosis and care.”

Project Kgolagano was officially unveiled in March 2015 at a clinic in the town of Lobatse. The initial phase of the project included three healthcare locations and focused on providing access to specialized maternal medicine in order to improve the lives of women and children in small towns and rural areas. A second and third phase of the project will connect another 16 hospitals and clinics and 16 primary and secondary schools around the country to the Internet. By the end of 2016, a total of 35 locations in rural communities around Botswana will be connected. High-speed connectivity at these anchor institutions could enable the wider community to gain access to online content and applications.

Through its 4Afrika initiative, Microsoft has launched similar pilot projects in countries across Africa, including South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, and Ghana. “TV white space is a cutting-edge technology that has the potential to enable network operators to provide cheaper broadband connectivity to billions of people around the world,” says Paul Garnett, Director of the Affordable Access Initiative at Microsoft. “The technology is ideal, as it can significantly improve the economics of deploying wireless broadband in underserved communities and can operate off-grid by leveraging solar power.”

Introducing connectivity in Kenya

In Nanyuki, Kenya, Microsoft has worked with local startup Mawingu Networks to bring Internet connectivity to the region. “Nanyuki and the rural areas around Nanyuki had no Internet before we arrived,” says Malcolm Brew, Founder and Chief Technical Officer of Mawingu Networks. “Using our solar-powered base stations and a combination of TV white space and microwave transponders, we’ve got a lot of communities, villages, and schools that now have true broadband Internet for the first time.”

One of the businesses using the service is Tambuzi Farm, a specialist supplier of traditional garden scented roses. “The Internet is important for everyone in the world—Kenya is no different,” says Maggie Hobbs, Founder of Tambuzi Farm. “Some people here may not have electricity in their homes, but being able to access the Internet somewhere is important to them—it really is. Without it, we can’t be included in so many different things.”

At Gakawa Secondary School in Nanyuki, lack of Internet connectivity limited the opportunities that students had and the impact that they were able to make on the world. But now the doors of opportunity have opened wide thanks to the broadband access provided by Mawingu Networks.

“In the next five to ten years, we’ll be producing engineers and doctors from the schools in this area,” says Benson Maina, Community Liaison at Mawingu Networks. “Everyone is starting to believe that the Internet can radically change the lives of people who live here.”

Adds Beatrice Ndirangu, Principal of Gakawa Secondary School, “With TV white space, students’ destinies are in their own hands. If they use all these facilities, they have a future for themselves—a truly bright future.”

Expanding education in Colombia

Colombia has put a lot of effort into spreading broadband Internet throughout the country via a network of fiber-optic cable that the government deployed to metropolitan areas. But it still takes hard work and ingenuity to extend that connectivity to small villages.

Rioarriba is one such small village, located 120 miles northwest of the capital of Bogotá. The village lies 24 miles north of the municipality of Aguadas and is usually reached by a bus trip up a winding mountain road. There is a national fiber hub in Aguadas, but there was no practical way to lay down a direct physical link for the 142 students in Rioarriba School because of the challenging terrain and dense jungle in the area. So the school turned to a TV white space solution. With support from the Colombian national spectrum regulator, Agencia Nacional del Espectro, the school set up a radio transmitter at the fiber node in Aguadas to broadcast on a TV white space frequency toward the school. At the school they faced the challenge of mounting an antenna in the precise location necessary to receive the data stream and transmit back to Aguadas.

The antenna needed to be six meters high in order for the link to work, and the school did not have a pole or building that was high enough. So the school improvised—the antenna now sits atop a six-meter-tall bamboo pole, and the staff and students like to refer to their new broadband connectivity as their “bamboo Internet.” With the antenna properly situated, Microsoft worked with the school to install an access point with two network hubs, one for laptops and tablets, and one for cellphones. Meanwhile, the national government’s Computadores para Educar (Computers for Schools) program has been working to increase the number of laptops and tablets in schools, and it has improved the ratio from one device for every 24 children to one device for every six students. The goal is to bring the ratio to one device for every two students by 2018. 

Facilitating disaster recovery in the Philippines

In July 2013, Microsoft began an alliance with USAID, along with technology and agriculture departments of the Philippine government, to bring broadband connectivity to remote areas on the island of Bohol, in the Central Visayas region, using TV white space technology. The original goal of the initiative, part of the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (ECOFISH) Project, was to promote better management of fishing stocks and sustainable fishing practices by registering people throughout the country who do commercial fishing. But the technology foundation laid by the project soon proved to be valuable in a much different way.

In October 2013, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Bohol island, killing at least 200 people, injuring thousands more, and destroying 11,400 homes. In November, the region was still recovering from the earthquake when super typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, leaving a vast trail of destruction in its wake. The storm killed more than 6,000 people and left 4 million people homeless while doing an estimated US$14 million in damage. Due to extreme infrastructure damage, all communication lines to the Central Visayas region were disabled and power was lost in many areas. This provided a great logistical barrier for relief efforts.

The storm had wiped out most of the local cell phone towers, making it difficult to quickly reestablish communications. So Microsoft worked with the Philippine government to repurpose the TV white space technology from the ECOFISH Project and turn it into a lifeline for those people whose lives had been devastated by the storm.

According to Lawrence Ang, Public-Private Partnership Specialist for the ECOFISH Project, “With TV white space, we were able to provide connectivity to relief workers, who then used the technologies to coordinate with their superiors, with their colleagues, with nongovernmental organizations, and with USAID. Skype was also important in enabling telemedicine to assess very specific and esoteric medical cases in the earthquake-hit areas.”

This made it much easier for the workers in the field to bring help where it was needed. “TV white space was very useful for the social workers in the province who had to assess the situation,” says Wendy Riza Diamse, Clerk and Data Encoder for the Municipal Social Welfare Development Office in the municipality of Tubigon. “We used it to submit reports and identify how many families were affected, and how much water and food they would need to send here to Tubigon and the entire Bohol region.”

Since then, Microsoft has brought full-time broadband connectivity to students at San Jose National High School (SJNHS) in Bohol, and it has made a great impact. “TV white space is a great help to our teachers, and to the students as well,” explains Nolasco Fuentes, a Technology and Livelihood Education teacher at SJNHS. “Teachers can easily search for modules and learning materials to improve and update lessons, and they can also use the technology to submit reports. And it makes it easy for students to do research in their subjects.”

Ryan A., a ninth grader at SJNHS, says, “Having Internet in our school changed my life, because now, if I need an immediate reference or resource for any task, I can go online and find it right away!” Adds classmate Ivan R., “The Internet changed my outlook on life, and it lets me learn about and explore all the wonders that can be found in the world and what I can do to improve my country.”

Enabling community access in rural Jamaica

In Jamaica, Microsoft has partnered with USAID, the Jamaican Government’s Universal Service Fund, and mobile operator FLOW to extend broadband connectivity to more than 30 rural schools, community centers, police stations, and healthcare clinics, enabling access to content and cloud-based applications and services. The Jamaican Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining is a signatory to a Memorandum of Understating with the project partners and the necessary policy, financial, and licensing support is being provided by the Office of Utility Regulation, the Universal Service Fund, and the Spectrum Management Authority, respectively.

This project builds upon the Vision 2030 Jamaica National Development Plan, which, among other things, focuses on expanding affordable broadband into rural communities. The project was made possible by cash grants from the USAID and the Jamaican Universal Service Fund. Microsoft provided in-kind support, including Office365 software and services, Partners in Learning teacher training, a TV white space database, and technical and regulatory support. FLOW provided systems integration, network management, and service delivery, while the US Federal Communications Commission offered technical and regulatory support.

One of the schools benefiting from Internet access is the Park Hall Infant and Primary School, one of the most remote schools in Jamaica. According to Mrs. Clark, Principal of Park Hall School, “Now our school has Internet access to assist us in teaching. We are grateful and happy because this has helped us to be better teachers, to gain access to the world, and to assist our children in becoming contributing citizens of this country.”