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South African University Hosts TV White Spaces Pilot

A South African university will play host to a new six-month trial of wireless broadband using unallocated broadcast TV spectrum.

Universiteit Stellenbosch will host the three broadcast stations involved in the trial from its Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at U Stellenbosch's Cape Town campus. For the pilot program, which launched March 25, the stations will provide wireless broadband to 10 schools.

The unused portions of the TV spectrum between channels are referred to as "white space." Historically they've been untapped, but there's a growing number of applications that have the potential to benefit from the use of these white spaces, and momentum has been growing globally. In the United States in 2010, the FCC adopted rules allowing for limited unlicensed use of white spaces and is currently looking into additional potential uses. Google recently launched a 45-day trial of its white spaces database, part of the process Google is undertaking to become a certified database administrator for spectrum sharing.

Google itself is involved in the South African pilot program, testing its database to ensure it's accurate enough to prevent interference for broadcasters. Google was also involved in a pilot test in the United States back in 2010 in Ohio that involved a single hospital.

According to the FCC: "This block of spectrum is ripe for innovation and experimental use, holding rich potential for expanding broadband capacity and improving access for many users, and for developing technologies that can expand this type of spectrum access to other frequencies and services in order to greatly increase our ability to utilize spectrum. The FCC is moving forward with plans and is actively working to unlock this spectrum in order to maximize white spaces' value for consumers and businesses."

It also has the potential to deliver broadband services to areas with poor telecommunications infrastructure, including rural areas in the United States and in other tech-strapped regions of the world, according to Google.

For the South Africa trial, Google has teamed with several partners to deliver wireless broadband to schools in the Cape Town area of South Africa. Universiteit Stellenbosch will host the three broadcast stations involved in the trial from its Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at U Stellenbosch's Cape Town campus.

The trial will attempt to provide 2.5 Mbps broadband to the 10 schools, though the radios used in the trial are capable of up to 10 Mbps. In order to prevent potential downtime during the trial, the pilot also includes failover to ADSL.

As Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, public policy manager for Google South Africa, explained in a blog post: "During the trial, we will attempt to show that broadband can be offered over white spaces without interfering with licensed spectrum holders. To prevent interference with other channels, the network uses Google's spectrum database to determine white space availability. To confirm results, the CSIR Meraka Institute will take spectrum measurements and frequently report back to [South African communications regulator] ICASA and the local broadcasters."

Other organizations involved in the trial include: Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa (TENET); e-Schools Network; Wireless Access Providers' Association; Comsol Wireless Solutions; Carlson Wireless (providing radios); and Neul (also providing radios).

"White Space technology is gaining momentum around the world," Mgwili-Sibanda explained. "In the US, it is already available for licensed exempt uses. In the UK, regulator Ofcom is working on a model regulatory framework based on a license-exempt or 'managed access' use of television white spaces spectrum. We hope the results of the trial will drive similar regulatory developments in South Africa and other African countries."

The beginnings of the pilot took place in October 2011. The launch event took place just yesterday. The trial is expected to last six months, according to TENET. All 10 schools are located within 6.2 miles of the broadcast stations and were chosen based on a number of criteria, including proximity and IT and network support.

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