Malawi Leaps Ahead With White Spaces Pilot

Malawi is not a country that often makes the international news, particularly not in the realm of connectivity. Economically poor and landlocked, it faces significant challenges in achieving affordable access for all. While both the incumbent telco (MTL) and the electricity parastatal (Escom) have national fibre backbone networks, achieving affordable Internet access in rural areas remains a huge obstacle.

Dr. Chomora Mikeka

Dr. Chomora Mikeka (University of Malawi)

That could all be changing thanks to the vision of Chomora Mikeka, a lecturer at the Physics Department at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi.  Chomora has forged a partnership between the Physics Department and Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to establish a White Spaces pilot project in Zomba.   The pilot also enjoys the support and collaboration of the Marconi Wireless Lab (T/ICT4D) at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.  ICTP have a long history of supporting wireless access research in Africa.

On behalf of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), I was able to join the pilot deployment team as they set up the first connections for the pilot.  I met up with Chomora ten days ago along with the ICTP team of Marco Zennaro, Ermanno Pietrosemoli, Carlo Fonda, and Andrés Arcia-Moret.  ICTP have extensive experience in the deployment of wireless networks around the world and are an ideal technical partner for Chancellor College and MACRA.  The pilot is designed to connect a number of different institutions including a school, a hospital, an airport and a research facility.

Rural Connect Base StationThe first step in setting up the network was establishing that the base station equipment was functioning correctly.  Like the white spaces trial in South Africa, the pilot is using equipment from Carlson Wireless.  At the time of procurement, Carlson was the only company ready to supply white spaces equipment.  This is changing slowly.  The base station depends on an Internet connection in order to validate and download any updates to the system from Carlson.  Having verified that the base station could communicate with Carlson’s server from behind the university’s firewall, it was time to move to the next step, setting up the main antenna.

Carlo Fonda (ICTP)

Carlo Fonda (ICTP) deploying white spaces antenna

The pilot is using a unique omni-directional antenna produced by Carlson which is designed to offer performance across a wide range of UHF frequencies.  It looks like a big mailer tube and is pretty hefty.  Arrangements were made with the nearby Chancellor College community radio station to use their FM tower to mount the antenna.  The FM tower is a tall guyed-mast affair that looked a little dubious when it came to supporting the weight of an installer and the antenna, however, the experienced ICTP team were able to get the white spaces antenna in place along with a 5GHz backhaul link in a matter of hours.  The antenna was mounted at a height of 23m which according to the initial spectrum measurements carried out by ICTP should provide a range of up to 20km.  Having a ready-made high site in the form of the FM radio tower to mount the antenna on saved both time and expense in the deployment.

Yagi Antenna

Yagi Antenna

This is the first deployment, to my knowledge, of a point-to-multipoint omni-directional white spaces antenna in Africa. One of the interesting questions to explore will be how many white spaces clients can be supported connecting to a single omni antenna.  At the other end of the link, the white spaces client devices use a different kind of antenna known as Yagi-Uda or more commonly Yagi antenna.  A Yagi antenna looks a bit like the business end of a swordfish and is designed to focus a radio signal for maximum range.  Typical Yagi antennas are very limited in the bandwidth range they can operate over.   The ones deployed in the pilot are a significant modification of the original Yagi design,  offering a gain between 9 and 11 dBi over the frequency range from 400 MHz to 800 MHz.

Tryness Kantedza (MACRA) and Chomora Mikeka (U of Malawi)

Chomora Mikeka (U of Malawi) and Tryness Kantedza (MACRA) check readings on a spectrum analyser

One of the best things about the pilot deployment was that it wasn’t just the technical team of Chomora and ICTP involved in the deployment.  Chomora had a number of his students from the Physics Dept involved and they were able to learn from the experts at each stage of deployment.  Equally interesting was the involvement of MACRA who sent Spectrum Planning Officers, Stan Chimgoga and Tryness Kantedza to participate in the deployment as well.  It bodes well for this pilot that there is such involvement and commitment to the pilot. Indeed, Lloyd Momba, Director of Telecommunications at MACRA as well as Jonathan Pinifolo, Deputy Director for Spectrum Management have been pivotal in the bringing the project to fruition.

The pilot connected a number of different types of institutions.  I wasn’t able to stay for the entire deployment but was able to get the full story afterwards from Marco and Ermanno.   First, a girls school.  St. Mary’s Girls Secondary School serves about 480 students and is only 2.4km away from the FM tower.  Connecting schools is a strategic issue for MACRA as they hope through white spaces technology, they may be able to aggregate demand and provide a less expensive connectivity option for schools than the current option of ADSL.  They also hope that white spaces will reach schools beyond the range of copper wire networks.

Next came Pirimiti Community Hospital.  This is one of the more interesting and challenging links for the pilot as it is about 20km from the FM tower.  Unfortunately, an initial site for the yagi antenna had to be changed and the deployment there was delayed to allow for the construction of an independent 12m mast for the antenna.  Other sites included the Seismology Department of the Government of Malawi which is a research node and partner in the continental AfricaArray project and  and finally a link to the Malawi Defense Force, Airwing (Air Force Maintenance Department).

The pilot deployment team has installed monitoring appliances in the form of Alix boards at each site to run performance measurements, the results of which will be openly shared.

Almost more challenging than the white spaces links was the Internet uplink for the project.  Initially there was to have been a fibre connection to the FM radio station itself.  Unfortunately this link had not been built in time for the pilot deployment.  As a backup plan the Chancellor College offered to share its connectivity with the project.  This was implemented via a 5GHz point-to-point link between the college and the FM radio tower.  Unfortunately the entire university campus in Zomba is limited to 5.5Mbps of service 4Mbps from MTL (fiber) and 1.5Mbps from Astrium (VSAT).  As the white spaces pilot came on line, the additional bandwidth use caused the university IT managers some concern and ultimately they were obliged to withdraw bandwidth support for the pilot.

It is a tribute to the Malawian regulator that, in the face of this obstacle, they have committed to providing a dedicated 2Mbps link at their own expense for the pilot for a full year.  It is frankly inspiring to see the support and leadership that MACRA have brought to this pilot.  Their plans are to run the pilot until December of this year and then make an assessment.

In contrast with other white spaces pilots/trials, less emphasis has been put on the idea of a geo-location spectrum authentication database.  Geo-location databases, while not part of the original concept of television white spaces spectrum, have emerged in the U.S. and U.K. as a compromise between white spaces advocates and opponents of the technology from the broadcast and wireless microphone industry who have expressed concern about interference.  A geo-location database would force white spaces devices to authenticate first to confirm what channels were available prior to commencing operation.

The pilot proponents take as their starting position the fact that television spectrum is significantly unused in Malawi, especially in rural areas.  This may mean that it is feasible to develop white spaces technology initially in Malawi without the overhead of a geo-location database.  On the other hand, they recognise the benefits that a spectrum database can offer in terms of creating a knowledge-base of spectrum occupancy, of being able to vary power output levels for differing contexts, and in potentially extending dynamic spectrum use beyond the VHF/UHF bands.  Their perspective is that a geo-location database can be a natural evolution in developing white spaces regulation but not a requirement to get initial regulation in place.

All of this above makes Malawi an absolutely fascinating place to watch white spaces technology and regulation evolve.  It is possible we may see an African model for white spaces regulation emerge from Malawi that may be better suited to the sparse spectrum occupancy of the TV bands in the region.  The fact that this initiative is owned equally by the University of Malawi and MACRA bodes well for the development of regulation that is appropriate to the problem at hand, rural access.  Malawi may well be the first African country to establish white spaces regulation.

Below is a brief video interview about the pilot with Chomora Mikeka.

A range of photos from the deployment can be found on my Flickr page as well as that of Marco Zennaro.

Note:  Thanks to Chomora Mikeka, Marco Zennaro, and Ermanno Pietrosemoli for invaluable additions and corrections to the original article.



Reconciling Open Data and Privacy


Digital rights advocates have a hard time these days because the ability to manifest things online and the growth of online data have brought two “rights” into conflict.  On one hand transparency and accountability advocates argue that getting government data online in all its forms will contribute to accountability.  On the other hand privacy advocates are concerned that our right to privacy may be undermined through the collection of data for whatever end virtuous or nefarious.

opendata_googleThis is challenging because the very serendipity that the Open Data movement hopes for in the innovative combining of datasets to add value, may end up compromising the privacy of individuals or groups through the “jigsaw effect”.  More about  this in a previous post.

Today I’d like to propose a scenario that might allow Open Data and Privacy to get along more easily.  Here are the steps I think need to be taken to do it:

  1. I think the public statements like the G8 Open Data Charter need to explicitly acknowledge privacy as a core issue. The recently published Open Economic Principles do a lovely job of this and are a great step in this direction.  I see no reason why Economics should be unique in this regard.
  2. “Open by Default” is arguably the most essential principle of Open Data.  Open by Default is an attempt to effect cultural change in data sharing, to create a culture of openness.  We need to preserve that cultural orientation in any discussion of privacy.
  3. My suggestion therefore is that every open dataset should have a privacy statement, even if it is as simple as something that states “There are no known privacy issues related to this dataset”. Any dataset without a privacy statement shouldn’t be published. Existence of a privacy statement reveals that someone has at least thought about privacy related to the dataset, however briefly.  There is a saying that the most important thing about a strategic plan is that it reveals that strategic thinking  has taken place.  Similarly here, a privacy statement reveals that someone has thought about the privacy implications of releasing a given dataset.
  4. It will be important to be able to attribute privacy statements in order to facilitate an ongoing dialogue.  Privacy changes with time and context.  Any privacy statement may require revision and new input as things change.  We ought to be able to follow reasoning back to its source.
  5. To assist this, we need to develop methodologies and processes for having a structured conversation about privacy related to any particular dataset.  A list of structured questions might help as a beginning to help people think through privacy issues as efficiently as possible.
  6. I think we also need to acknowledge that there may be degrees of openness / privacy which provide limited access in some cases. The binary notion of open or closed isn’t going to get us far enough.

In summary, for Open Data,  the existence of datasets ought to be mandated to be open under any circumstances, and openly accessible subject to the publication of a privacy statement.

Why Bill Gates is Wrong About Project Loon

In a recent interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Bill Gates took issue with long time competitor Google and their plans to create an alternative communication infrastructure using balloons (Project Loon). He says:

When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.

I’ve heard this sort of thing from folk in the international development world for years, mostly older folk still dictating their emails to their secretaries.  ”Yeah, but how is this going to help the poor farmer in rural Tanzania?”  It is frankly surprising to hear it from it from Bill Gates.  Erik Hersman responded to Gates’ comments by pointing out two things:  1) that Gates is perpetuating a narrative about Africa which portrays Africans as helpless; and 2) that development is of course multi-dimensional and it is not an either-or question.

mosquitoI agree with Erik on both points but I want to go farther in saying that Gates is just flat-out wrong.  Communication infrastructure has everything to do with Malaria according to this 2007 study on the “Role of information and communication networks in malaria survival“.  The researchers claim that up to 82% of all malaria episodes in sub-Saharan Africa are treated outside the formal health sector and that 70% of the malaria cases that are treated at home are mismanaged.  As a result, access to a resource or a person that can assist in diagnosis and treatment is key to reducing morbidity and mortality.

In a study carried out across 70 countries, the researchers found that intensity of communication infrastructure is strongly correlated with reduced probability of death from malaria.  They conclude by saying:

In preventing malaria, ICN [Information and Communication Networks] may not have a direct impact similar to malaria drugs but it can certainly increase the effectiveness of the intervention strategies and resources indirectly. ICN can speed up the delivery of services and provide access to crucial health information. Access to information and knowledge allows the community members to participate in opportunities and activities related to their own development.

This reinforces Erik’s point that constructing the argument as a choice of one or the other is disingenuous.  It also points out that basic communication infrastructure does in fact have a critical role to play in malaria prevention.  Note also that there is no direct causal line here.  No malaria hotline or mobile app.  No philanthropic initiative that can claim victory for their intervention, just access to communication infrastructure generally.

So what about Project Loon?  Is it going to revolutionise the world of connectivity?  I seriously doubt it.  That said, I also doubted YouTube and Twitter in their infancy.  Project Loon is a very high-risk idea, so risky its sounds a bit “loony”, a fact that is obviously not lost on the the project founders.  Is pursuing high risk projects like Project Loon a bad idea?  No, it is a pretty smart approach.  They are pursuing what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a barbell strategy which promotes a combination of investment in extremes kept separate, with avoidance of the middle.  Thus Google can continue to milk the ad revenue cow they have reared but also take chances on risky bets that have very high upsides if they succeed but low comparative cost to Google if they fail.

Finally, what appeals most to me about the role of communication infrastructure is that it ultimately promotes self-reliance, increased social capital, and local innovation.  Initiatives that focus on lowering the cost of access and making it more ubiquitous will indirectly (and perhaps directly) contribute to African countries shrugging off the vestiges of dependency they have on the largesse of plutocrats of any flavour.

Mosquito image courtesy of Gerald Yuvallos CC 2005 BY-ND

Why Can’t Anyone Agree on Spectrum?

Electromagnetic spectrum is the crude oil of last-mile connectivity, especially in Africa where more traditional kinds of last-mile communication infrastructure are not especially well-developed. As in the oil business, anyone who has gained control of spectrum in the last ten to twenty years has made a great deal of money. But unlike oil, spectrum is something that is much harder to put your finger on. The struggle to understand what kind of thing spectrum is and consequently how it should be managed has led to a lot of disagreement, to the extent that we can’t seem to work out whether it is abundant or running out. In the past couple of years you may have seen articles with titles like these:

Crisis What Crisis?
New York Times
Carriers Warn of Crisis in Mobile Spectrum
The Atlantic Wire
The Totally Made Up Spectrum Crisis
It is No Trick – There is a Spectrum Crisis
MIT Technology Review
The Spectrum Crunch That Wasn’t
ITWeb South Africa
Spectrum dearth thwarts SA’s LTE growth
Broadcast Engineering
PCAST report concludes spectrum scarcity ‘an illusion’
‘Spectrum crunch’ may slow US mobile revolution
The myth of the wireless spectrum crisis

Apparently even with our remarkable technical capacity to manufacture smartphones that are more powerful than all of NASA’s computing power in 1969, we still can’t really get to grips with the elusive nature of radio spectrum.  To unpack this problem, let’s go back to basics.

What is Electromagnetic Spectrum and Why Does It Require Regulation?

water_wave_overlaySpectrum is not actually a thing, it is simply the range of possible frequencies for electromagnetic radiation.  By varying the size and frequency of radio waves, we are capable of sending information wirelessly.  This was first achieved with voice and telegraph but has now evolved into digital communication capable of transmitting anything that can represented digitally from documents to sound to video. multiple_waves_comparison

So what does wireless communication look like?  Imagine a still pond into which you have dropped a single pebble. It is easy to see the propagation of waves caused by the stone.  Now imagine twenty people dropping stones into the same pond at the same time.  Can you still see the waves caused by your stone?  Unlikely. This is called interference.  You can no longer see your waves.  While radio waves are not physical waves like water, they interfere with each other in a similar sort of manner.  When the signals from two television stations overlap, you can no longer distinguish the program you wanted to watch.  Counter-intuitively, radio waves are not destroyed when they collide with each other.  They pass through each other.  Thus if you had the magical ability to colour only the waves caused by your pebble, you would clearly see your waves again even though others were dropping pebbles at the same time.  The technical meaning of “interference” is at odds with its more colloquial meaning which is to block or obstruct.  When radio waves interfere they don’t impede each other but they can make the original wave form hard to recognise.

And that brings to the most significant reason why radio spectrum is regulated and that is to prevent interference.  Another reason to regulate spectrum is coordination to encourage people doing similar things and using similar technologies to use the same frequencies. In the early days of wireless communication, interference was an easy problem to solve. The range of available spectrum was vast and demand was comparatively small. Interference could be solved by making sure that people using spectrum in the same geographic region were allocated individual bands of spectrum that were well apart from each other in the spectrum band.  This strategy was reasonably successful for nearly 70 years.

And so things might have continued to this day had it not been for the explosion of demand for wireless spectrum from broadband service providers and mobile operators. In the last 15 years, spectrum has gone from an abundant to an apparently scarce resource. But is it truly scarce? It is certainly true that demand currently exceeds supply but there is debate as to the nature of the scarcity and that debate is rooted in the nature of what spectrum is and how, as a result, it should be treated.

So What Kind of a Thing is Spectrum?

A key consideration when looking at public versus private access to any resource is whether that resource is rival or not i.e. does use of it by one person preclude use by another. Rival goods tend to become private property whereas non-rival goods such as solar power, for example, are public goods that do not require explicit management. And of course there is a range of goods in between which are partially rival such as the oceans and nature in general which are non-rival as long as care is taken to ensure the resource is tended and non-overused. Historically, regulators have been obliged to treat spectrum as a rival good because of interference. In fact, in order to ensure the absence of interference for television broadcasters, regulators were obliged to establish spectrum frequency no-man’s-lands between television channels to reduce the chances of stray interference.  However, the now rapid evolution of both wireless and information technology obliges us to reconsider how we think about spectrum and spectrum management.  Is spectrum a rival resource?  The answer is fuzzier than it used to be.

Technological increases in efficiency

First we have to acknowledge the steady increase in spectral efficiency in wireless technologies. Every year we are able to pack more data into less spectrum with less power. This efficiency is typically expressed as bits per hertz per km2.  While spectrum is not infinite, the trend towards efficiency increase shows no immediate sign of slowing down. In fact, wireless pioneer Martin Cooper has coined a law similar to Moore’s Law in which he argues that spectral efficiency has doubled every 30 months since Marconi patented the wireless telegraph in 1897.  The evolution of radio and antenna design has meant that with increased sensitivity we can now communicate the same information with much less power.  You can imagine old television broadcast transmitters as effectively having to “shout” at the relatively deaf television sets.  But sensitivity is only part of the story.  Engineers are making great strides in mitigating wireless interference. It is increasingly possible to design wireless technologies which are sensitive to other radio transmissions and which can operate in “noisy” environments.  The scenario described above where one might be able to recognise the pond waves from ones own pebble is now increasingly possible through techniques like beamforming with multiple antennas.

Administrative increases in efficiency 

Imagine having a hotel room permanently reserved for you in every city in your country.  No matter where or when you travel, you room is always ready.  Great for you but a bit of tough business for the hotel owner.  This is effectively how early spectrum regulation operated and it was feasible because capacity far exceeded demand.  With the situation now reversed, regulators have had to embrace a more nuanced approach to the different dimensions of spectrum.  Here are some of the different ways in which spectrum can be administered:

More control of radio propagation means that we regulate different for different regions in a country.  This might mean having different spectrum license holders in different areas or it might mean varying the allowable power output based on geography.

The proximity of devices to each other can make a difference.  Low power devices that are nearby each other can operate in the same spectrum as much higher power technology but below its “noise floor“.  Imagine two people talking to each other at a rock concert.  Their conversation doesn’t interfere with a the very loud concert yet they are close enough to communicate with each other “at low power”.  I am grateful to Sascha Meinrath for that extremely apt analogy.  

Some spectrum technologies have a specific orientation, that is to say as opposed to radiating generally, they are pointed in a specific direction.  Satellites are a great example of this.  They obvious point upwards.  This creates an opportunity for re-use of the spectrum in ways that don’t point up e.g. point-to-point terrestrial links.  Another means of reducing interference is to use antenna designs that polarise communication i.e. radio waves propagate orthogonally to each other and so reduce interference.

Spectrum can also be shared in time.  This could happen in big chunks such as someone using television spectrum late at night when the station is not broadcasting to sharing of micro slices of time.  Thanks to computing technology, it is possible for the same spectrum to be automatically shared in tiny time slices which give the appearance of continuous connectivity.

Letting Technology Handle the Administration

To date the regulation of spectrum has largely relied on human management and oversight.  This places a significant burden on the regulator and is necessarily somewhat slow.  New technologies offer the potential for the use of spectrum to be managed dynamically via a database.  This would not only lower the barrier to access but could be used to ensure fair play among spectrum holders.  Allowing computer systems to dynamically assign spectrum on demand could create both spectrum and organisational efficiencies. 

Not All Spectrum Is Created Equal

A final important thing to know about spectrum is that not all wireless spectrum is created equal. At the lower frequency end of the radio spectrum, radio waves tend to have better propagation characteristics than at higher frequencies. This means they have better reach because they are capable of travelling through solid objects with less signal loss. Thus radio spectrum at the lower frequencies are often considered quite valuable because fewer transmitters are required to cover an equivalent area at a higher frequency. There is a trade-off though: the physics of lower frequencies present bigger constraints to broadband capacity than higher frequencies.  So higher frequencies can carry more data but don’t propagate as well while lower frequencies have much better range but are more limited in terms of throughput.

So Is There a Crisis?

Perhaps crisis is the wrong word.  Are we running out of spectrum?  The answer to that seems to clearly be that ongoing innovation and efficiency increases will ensure we don’t run out of spectrum for some time to come.  So no crisis?  Well, not exactly.  We still haven’t worked out a very satisfying means of deciding who gets what spectrum and for how long.  As a result, there is an apparent scarcity of spectrum as debate about how best to make spectrum available leads to delays, confusion, and missed opportunities.  More about that in the next posts in this series.

Water images courtesy of Snappy.joneS 2006 BY-NC-SA and Marc Dezemery 2006 BY-NC-ND

White Spaces in Africa – A Tale of Two Trials

ZA-KE_flagsI’ve been thinking this week about the similarities and differences among the various TV White Spaces (TVWS) pilots that are currently underway in Africa, in particular about Kenya and South Africa, my favourite countries to compare in terms of ICT growth and competitiveness. For the last few years, Kenya has offered a great stick to beat South Africa with. With strong leadership in the Ministry of ICTs and a thriving entrepreneurial sector, they have provided a striking contrast to the internecine battles and lack of progress in the ICT sector in South Africa. Happily, TVWS technology provides a counter-example where South Africa now leads the continent.

TVWS in South Africa

In a few months I will mark five years of advocacy for TVWS regulation. My first blog post on the topic in September 2008 explored what was happening in terms of U.S. TVWS regulation and what potential impact that might have in South Africa. The issue was first picked up in the mainstream press in early 2009. By late 2009, I had begun to collaborate with the Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) to look for potential opportunities for change with the regulator (ICASA). We explored Lite Licensing, expanded ISM bands, TVWS, among other technologies. WAPA, in particular its chair Henk Kleynhans, became vocal advocates for TVWS spectrum. We formed the Open Spectrum Alliance which further brought the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) into a coalition of civil society organisations lobbying for regulatory change. Our strategy was to seek every opportunity to build mindshare for the idea of TVWS. You can see a list of articles published in the last 5 years which gives you a sense of how much work was involved in this. From late 2009 through 2010 we talked, we lobbied but not much happened. Then in early 2011, I was contacted by Ory Okolloh who had just joined Google as their Africa Policy Manager. She had picked up on a post I’d written suggesting that Google’s support for TV White Spectrum policy in the US could be extended to Africa to have even greater impact.

With Ory now strategising with us, we decided on our next move which was to convene a workshop bringing experiences from TV White Space regulation elsewhere in the world together with regulators, policy-makers, and representatives from industry and civil society. This workshop took place in October 2011. We invited regulators from South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, and Nigeria.icasa_9-9-11 Only CCK, the Kenyan regulator, declined to send a participant. Happily the Kenyan Ministry of ICTs and civil society group KICTANet were represented. Our timing was perfect as the South Africa regulator, ICASA, had already started to take notice of TVWS technology. A September 2011 presentation on strategy from ICASA highlights “white spaces” as part of their digital dividend strategy. The highlight of the workshop was Google’s announcement that they would consider supporting a TVWS trial in South Africa.

It is worth briefly pointing out why trials are important to TVWS regulation. Because TVWS technology is designed to operate as a secondary use of spectrum, it is critical to demonstrate that the technology will not interfere with the primary spectrum holder, the television broadcasters. There has been a lot of pushback on TVWS by broadcasters in the US who argued that TVWS technology would inevitably interfere with broadcast quality. A trial is essential for the regulator to have a body of evidence that shows that TVWS do not interfere. As time goes on and TVWS becomes more mainstream, it is likely that not every country will need to carry out trials as they will be able to draw on the increasing body of evidence from around the world. A trial is also important for the regulator to be able to assess the functioning of the TVWS authentication database that is the emerging default means of managing secondary TVWS use.

As we considered the potential for a trial, two key questions emerged. One, what sort of trial should it be, rural or urban, commercial or government, small or large, etc. Two, who would manage the trial. WAPA was a possibility but as an industry association, it was really set up for operational project management on this scale. Google insisted on not managing the trial themselves as they wisely saw the importance of the trial being a fully South African initiative. Happily through my association with TENET, the National Research and Education Network (NREN) of South Africa, I was able to interest them in taking responsibility for the trial. This led naturally to a decision to connect schools in the Western Cape, bringing in a partner organisation to TENET, the eSchools Network (ESN). TENET hired Henk Kleynhans, who had by then stepped down as WAPA chair, as its project manager and Henk was succeeded by Arno Hart, who manages the trial now. This also became a great opportunity to forge an strong relationship with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) who have taken responsibility for the accurate measurement of spectrum throughout the trial.

And that is where my involvement stops. I relocated from South Africa to Canada shortly after the trial began and now simply cheer on the sidelines and look for more opportunities to advocate for shared spectrum approaches in Africa and beyond. Please forgive the somewhat “Steve-centric” description above. Think of me as just one of the blind men describing an elephant. The TVWS trial is the result of a truly collective effort with people from Google, WAPA, ICASA, CSIR Meraka, TENET, eSchools Network, APC, and ComSol all playing critical roles.

TVWS in Kenya

My version of the Kenyan TVWS story is less complete as I have only observed this from a distance. In July of 2011, as we were organising speakers for the October TVWS Workshop, Ory and I were introduced to Jim Beveridge and Paul Mitchell of Microsoft who have been leading Microsoft’s work in TVWS for some time. Microsoft not only agreed to attend the October workshop but also to share a panel on spectrum at the the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Nairobi in Sept 2011. Microsoft were able to talk about their work in TVWS and also to briefly demonstrate TVWS technology at the event. I think it was at this time that Microsoft were able to connect with the Ministry of ICTs and CCK about TVWS. Once again, there was support from the then Permanent Secretary, Bitange Ndemo but little buy-in from CCK.

Fast forward about 18 months and Microsoft have announced Mawingu, a TVWS initiative that is a partnership between Microsoft, Indigo Telecom, and the government of Kenya. USAID are also an important partner having contributed both money and equipment to the project but they don’t appear to get much of a mention.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this project was inspired by one of the true pioneers of connectivity in Africa, Malcolm Brew. Years ago Malcolm was the CTO of Bushnet Uganda, a company building HF radio links into rural Uganda and the DRC to deliver email into areas previously considered inaccessible except by satellite. Having since moved back to the Isle of Bute in his native Scotland, Malcolm convinced British Telecom to run a TV White Spaces trial on the Isle. Paul Henderson, chair of Indigo Telecom, happened to call Malcolm and was amazed by the quality of their Skype call over the TVWS connection. He immediately saw the potential of TVWS and the result is the project you see today.

One glaring fly in the ointment, however, is the fact that in spite of official support for this project from the Kenyan government, CCK are still reluctant to support the project in any way. To this day, as far as I know, the Mawingu project does not even have an experimental spectrum license to be able to carry out their trials. This is a pretty big deal. Without regulatory buy-in TVWS are going nowhere in Kenya.

So what is behind CCK’s reluctance to embrace TVWS technology and regulation? One Kenyan gov’t representative I spoke to back in 2011 seemed to imply that TVWS was seen as an “American” technology that was being pushed on them. There is an element of truth to this. TVWS technology has largely been developed in the US and US companies do have an element of first-mover advantage with TVWS. However, Huawei are busy developing TVWS equipment and because it is standards-based, it is open to competition. That feels like a bit of a red herring to me.

My gut feeling is that TVWS is, at best, perceived by CCK as an unnecessary added complication to the already complex Digital Switchover process. At worst, there is a lot of lobbying for television spectrum and I suspect that regulators are getting an earful from both broadcasters and mobile operators about why they should ignore TVWS.

Happily this is not the case everywhere. In Tanzania, Microsoft’s pilot with Costech is going very well with full support from the regulator. In fact, on Wednesday next week, Prof. John Nkoma, Director-General of the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) is chairing a sesion on TV White Spaces at the Global Symposium for Regulators in Poland. I hope someone from CCK is attending.