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(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Insight Internet pioneers
Kenya's 'White Spaces' trial helps get rural communities online
A new broadband technique that hops on unused TV spectrum is heping to get Kenyan villages online for the first time
Online for the first time
Solar power and derelict TV frequencies bring broadband to Kenyan villages
GAKAWA Senior Secondary School is located in Kenya's western Rift Valley Province, about 10 kilometres from Nanyuki town. It is not an easy place to live. There are no cash crops, no electricity, no phone lines, and rainfall is sporadic to say the least.
"For internet access we had to travel the 10 kilometres to Nanyuki and it would cost 100 Kenya shillings [about $1.20] to get there," says Beatrice Nderango, the school's headmistress.
Not for much longer. Solar-powered Wi-Fi is being installed in the area that will give local people easy access to the internet for the first time. The pilot project - named Mawingu, the Swahili word for "cloud" - is part of an initiative by Microsoft and local telecoms firms to provide affordable, high-speed wireless broadband to rural areas. If and when it is rolled out nationwide, as planned, it will mean that Kenya could lead the way with a model of wireless broadband access that in the West has been tied up in red tape.
Because the village has no power, Microsoft is working with Kenyan telecoms firm Indigo to install solar-powered base stations that supply a wireless signal at a bandwidth that falls into what is called the "white spaces" spectrum.
This refers to the bits of the wireless spectrum that are being freed up as television moves from analogue to digital - a set of frequencies between 400 megahertz and about 800 megahertz. Such frequencies penetrate walls, bend around hills and travel much longer distances than the conventional Wi-Fi we have at home. That means that the technology requires fewer base stations to provide wider coverage, and wannabe web surfers in the village need only a traditional TV antenna attached to a smartphone or tablet to access the signal and get online. Microsoft is supplying some for the trial, as well as solar-powered charging stations.
To begin with, Indigo has set up two solar-powered white-space base stations in three villages to deliver wireless broadband access to 20 locations, including schools, healthcare clinics, community centres and government offices.
"Africa is the perfect location to pioneer white-space technology," says Indigo's Peter Henderson, thanks to governments' open-mindedness. Indeed, Kenya has a strong chance of being in the global vanguard of white-space roll-out. While the US has already legalised use of derelict TV bands, it has yet to standardise the database technology that will tell devices which frequencies are free to use at their GPS location.
In the UK, white-space access should finally be up and running by the end of 2013, says William Webb of white-space startup Neul in Cambridge. "White-space trials are also taking place in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and many other countries - and some of these may move directly to allowing access without needing lengthy consultations," he says. In many cases, it has been these consultations that have slowed the technology's progress.
Microsoft aims to roll out the initiative to other African nations, such as sub-Saharan countries. "Internet access is a life-changing experience and its going to give both our students and teachers added motivation for learning," says Nderango. "It will also make my job as headmistress a little easier." Curtis Abraham n
Additional reporting by Paul Marks
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