Broadband Internet access can be expensive, even prohibitive in some countries, if it’s even available at all. To remedy the situation, tech giant Microsoft, among others, has turned to unused, unlicensed spectrum on VHF and UHF bands, also known as White Spaces, to deliver affordable high-speed Internet connectivity in Ghana.
The program provides students at a remote university with Internet access within a range of “five kilometers away from the university,” said Sean Sealey, CEO of SpectraLink Wireless, a Microsoft partner. “Right now, we are providing access in one university or one polytechnic, where we provide access both on campus and in the dormitories.”
Students get “10-20 times more than what they would get through mobile operators at the same price,” he said.
“Some students might be buying 20 megabytes … of data for one Ghana cedi. That’s about  U.S. cents,” he added. “We provide them unlimited data for one day for two Ghana cedis. So essentially, they can get … more at the same price.”
The program, which combines Wi-Fi technologies with white space to provide Internet access, recently became the first instance of the commercialization of this type of network.
“We’re mixing known technologies like WiFI that you have in your home, which we deploy on university campuses and in dormitories to create very large wireless hotspot networks, and then we use TV white space radios to connect those hotspots with each other,” Sealey explained.
He said TV white spaces can be thought of as super WiFi, with much longer range than normal WiFi, although it is inexpensive to deploy and use. To access the spectrum, Microsoft and SpectraLink Wireless worked with Ghana’s regulators to access unused, unlicensed TV frequencies.
Piloted last June with no signs of signal interference, the effort is part of Microsoft’s $75 million 4Africa initiative to “accelerate some certain actions within Africa,” said Frank McCosker, General Manager for Affordable Access & Smart Financing — Africa Initiatives at Microsoft in an interview with TECHtonics.
That includes investing in start-ups and new technologies, as well as training and partnerships in a number of countries that include Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Namibia.
“We look at different ways we can make access more affordable, whether that’s the cost of the device, or the cost of payment, or the cost of connectivity itself, which is what we’re looking at here,” said McCosker.
While mobile connectivity and other technologies already exist, albeit expensively, he said “the key was to address broadband access needs and affordability,” and to provide connectivity in “parts of countries which [are] not connected at all.”
“The reason we got together to do these projects was to transform Africa” economically and to provide affordable, ubiquitous Internet access, said Sealey.
Going forward, he foresees Internet access prices dropping across the region as white space connectivity becomes more prevalent. SpectraLink Wireless now plans to take white space Internet access to Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
His company, which has been working on this technology for the past three years, partnered with Microsoft over a year ago. Working together, Sealey said they “achieved something that is unique … And we hope that we will grow it massively in the next few years so everybody can get affordable access to broadcast Internet, which will change lives.”
“That’s what we’re trying to tackle with these projects in TV white space — [to] bring down the cost of broadband, as well as … actually bring broadband to unserved communities,” added McCosker.
Sealey credited Microsoft with investing resources and travel time to work with target governments and to explain “why it is a good idea to open up the use of these resources” and make them more affordable than what is on offer on existing mobile networks in these African countries.