The picturesque Valley of a Thousand Hills near Hillcrest in Durban will be the site of a commercial TV white-spaces (TVWS) pilot project after the US Trade and Development Agency stumped up finance for the roll-out. The backers hope it will prove the feasibility of using the technology to roll out low-cost Internet access to rural areas countrywide.
Non-profit Wi-Fi provider Project Isizwe, software giant Microsoft, research firm International Data Corp (IDC), TVWS equipment supplier Adaptrum, government science research institution the CSIR and industry body the Wireless Access Providers’ Association (Wapa) will all form part of the pilot project, which will seek to determine the commercial feasibility and “bankability” of the technology in rural areas.
TVWS uses the “white spaces”, or gaps, in television broadcasts to deliver telecommunications services. It is well suited to delivering low-cost Internet access in areas where people struggle with affordability.
Icasa has been a leader worldwide in the development of the regulations needed to govern TVWS roll-out
The Valley of a Thousand Hills roll-out — which will be paired with a similar project in Limpopo by the same backers, and which will eventually be rolled out to other provinces — comes after South Africa successfully ran technical feasibility trials of TVWS technology in Polokwane and Cape Town. Those projects enjoyed the backing of Microsoft and Google, respectively.
Project Isizwe MD Dudu Mkhwanazi, speaking to TechCentral from Durban on Monday ahead of a signing ceremony, said the project has been in the works for the past year. She said it is important that Wapa — which has more than 130 members providing Internet access to communities around the country — is involved as it is these companies that will be the biggest beneficiaries of TVWS technology and the ones most likely to deploy the infrastructure.
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Wapa has applied for a licence from communications regulator Icasa for the project.
The Durban project will consider topology (the Valley of a Thousand Hills is, unsurprisingly, hilly), population densities, likely average revenue per user and return-on-investment periods, Mkhwanazi said.
The partnership with IDC will be crucial in determining the project’s success. It will measure its impact and document on-the-ground results, including deployment and community take-up.
The aim is to provide 1GB of monthly access to the community at US$2/month (about R25/month) – a fraction of the cost of prepaid cellular data. Community members will connect via Wi-Fi at designated public endpoints and will buy access using a voucher-and-Pin system, Mkhwanazi explained.
The idea is to scale the project beyond the feasibility study to connect South Africans in rural areas countrywide.
The results of the feasibility study will be documented into a technical analysis, a financial feasibility paper and an executive whitepaper. From the whitepaper, bankable projects across Southern and East Africa will be developed.
Multiple TVWS base stations will be deployed in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Each base station will connect at a bandwidth of 20Mbit/s to about 30 Wi-Fi access points. These will be scattered within walking distance for each citizen in the coverage area.
The project will be expanded to Limpopo and eventually to the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Free State, the North West and the Northern Cape.
With appropriate financing, the backers expect this second phase to generate more than R1.5-billion of infrastructure investment opportunities to extend broadband coverage to the furthest rural areas of South Africa with an expected return on investment of less than three years.