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Nominet and Microsoft collaborate on TV white space broadband project for Africa

Nominet and Microsoft have announced a partnership to deliver broadband across the African continent, using Nominet’s TV white space database and dynamic spectrum-management technology, along with Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, to bring low-cost terrestrial wireless broadband internet to remote and rural communities.

TV white space (TVWS) is the part of the radio spectrum occupied by unassigned or unused UHF and VHF broadcast frequencies, largely unused in many countries since analogue television services started going off air, replaced by digital services. The available set of TVWS frequencies varies from territory to territory, so Nominet developed a geolocation database to tell devices which frequencies they can use in a given area, at what power and for how long.

Radio spectrum supports the majority of internet connections, but it is a finite resource and with the anticipated explosion of wireless broadband services and billions of devices connected to the Internet of Things, effective management of the spectrum will become crucial.

Speaking to E&T at the launch event, part of Nominet’s Internet of Things showcase, Adam Leach, head of R&D at Nominet, said, “As a business, we’ve been looking at the challenges of IoT. We’re looking at the four main areas where we see challenges: interoperability, security, privacy and connectivity.

“In connectivity, what we’ve been looking at is how dynamic spectrum can be used, how you can allocate spectrum more efficiently to stop the mass of wireless devices causing a spectrum crunch if we get that projected 60 billion devices all connecting to the internet. You’ve got a tripling of internet traffic and the majority of that being wireless, you’ve got this pressure on our wireless spectrum that needs to be addressed. We believe that geolocation technologies can be a good way to do that spectrum management.

“We’ve worked with Ofcom to develop the framework, which is now live to use. TV white space is the first bands of the spectrum to use dynamic spectrum allocation in the UK. That helps us reach these more remote communities. [The Isle of] Arran, with our partners, Broadway Partners, is our first commercial rollout of a broadband network. With Microsoft, we’re hopefully taking that proven technology to Africa.”

Nominet’s dynamic spectrum-management technology enables two-way communications at relatively high data rates over long distances and delivers connectivity to large open areas where it would be difficult to deploy fixed infrastructure. The proof of concept deployment of Nominet’s technology on the Isle of Arran has finally got that island community online at high speeds.

Reflecting on Nominet’s successful experiments with TV white space for broadband, Leach said, “We’ve observed that in certain terrains and in certain use cases, it’s a very useful thing. Because of the TV band, the characteristics of the radio spectrum there, the speed at long distances, you get high data rates, so it lends itself to the job. This is absolutely addressing a need and it’s proving the technology.”

The specialised hardware used for the TV white space communication differs from standard antennas which require sustained line-of-sight and whose signal can be disrupted by hills and mountains – clearly an issue in mountainous terrain, such as on the Isle of Arran. The hardware Nominet uses – and the white space radio bands – can pass through such natural obstacles relatively unhindered.

At the Nominet event, Michael Armitage of Broadway Partners, the firm that worked with Nominet to bring the TV white space broadband service to Arran, said, “Every year we have the autumn statement and it’s a big doze - taxes up here, taxes up there - and the Digital Infrastructure fund that came out to push fibre further out in to the sticks is great, but there’s always going to be that final five per cent, ten per cent, that’s completely left behind.

“We have the unglamourous, the boring but very necessary job of filling in the gaps that BT can’t possibly get to. Arran is a great showcase. Hell will freeze over before BT is able to get round to the bits that we get around to and the wireless technology that these guys [Nominet] have been working on with Microsoft does what it says on the tin. We’re building very dull, boring networks that change people’s lives!”

Trials with TV white space have been going on for decades, but because the results were merely interesting, not spectacular, “it’s always been a sort of snooze concept,” as Armitage says. Big telecoms companies thus weren’t sufficiently interested in pursuing the idea, which is one of the main reasons that TV white space has remained largely unexplored – until now. With the wireless spectrum becoming increasingly crowded, teetering almost at the brink of collapse, other alternatives need to be found.

While still expensive to deploy – “eye-wateringly expensive,” as Armitage puts it – the cost of the technology needed to exploit TV white space is coming down year on year, with hardware companies already talking about their new products next year bringing a 100 per cent improvement on speed at lower cost.

“It’s well beyond prototype stage, but it’s not yet at the level of mass manufacturing,” Armitage said. “Order sizes are in the tens and twenties, not the 200,000 of [a major broadband player’s] fibre-optic modem hardware costs.

“It’s not into the chip level, it’s not been miniaturised to the point where it’s a £10 item and then you wrap it in an exotic case and charge £100 for it. It’s a highly engineered, fairly custom-type product – at the moment. We’re confident in the trend that says next year it’s going to be half the price and the year after that it’s going to be half again. ”

The partnership announcement between Nominet and Microsoft is now aiming to capitalise on these economies of scale to take the TV white space broadband concept to Africa.

Microsoft already supports broadband connectivity programmes in Kenya, Botswana, Malawi and Ghana in Africa through its Affordable Access Initiatives. Paul Garnett, the programme’s director, said, “Microsoft’s current mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.  Microsoft is excited to be working with Nominet on developing Microsoft Azure cloud-based TV white space databases that will enable Internet access providers across Africa to leverage unused broadcast frequencies and deliver low-cost broadband Internet access.”

 

Nominet and Microsoft's TV white space plans for Africa - an infographic

 

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