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8 November 2013

Google’s trial with broadband over Wi-Fi is a success in South Africa

In Cape Town, ten schools benefited from fast, reliable broadband delivered not by wires, but by broadcast towers.

By Ian Steadman

Bringing fast internet connections to rural areas can be a lot simpler than going to the trouble of digging up roads and fields to lay cable. Google has been experimenting with superfast Wi-Fi, broadcast in what’s known as “white space” – that’s the name for the small gaps in the radiowave spectrum between TV, radio, mobile phone, and other broadcasts. And, while the UK trial of such technology is still underway, Google says its South African trial has been a resounding success.

From March 2013, ten schools in Cape Town were given broadband to prove that white space Wi-Fi wasn’t going to interfere with TV broadcasts. Since South Africa’s average broadband speeds are so rubbish – a mere 3.99Mbps, slower than many neighbouring countries in southern Africa and way behind the 14.7Mbps average in the UK – teachers can’t really make use of online resources like Youtube, Wikipedia, and so on in their lessons.

While the average speeds obtained by the broadcasts was still only 2.5Mbps (with occasional peaks as high as 10Mbps) the key thing is that reliability and coverage was greatly improved with only a small investment in infrastructure. That’s crucial – you’ll only rely on the internet as a tool if you know it’s not going to drop out on you – and that nationwide average of 3.99Mbps quoted above hides huge fluctuations in what customers can expect to receive down their telephone lines.

Here’s what happened, according to Google’s policy manager for South Africa, Fortune Sibanda:

Teachers were able to use videos in their lesson plans, make Skype calls to other schools, update school websites, and send regular email updates to parents. Students could use educational videos for research. Because the service was better and faster, teachers and learners used the web to enrich the classroom experience.

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At the same time, multiple sources confirmed that there was no interference with TV broadcast. Trial partner CSIR Meraka Institute performed frequent scientific studies to measure any potential interference over the six-month period. We also provided tools for people to report any interference experience while watching TV. Both the Meraka Institute’s findings, as well as crowdsourced reporting, show that the TVWS service did not interfere with local broadcast.

The results make for positive reading. The schools involved in the trial are getting to keep their white space Wi-Fi, and Google now has a solid set of recommendations it has offered to ICASA, the South Africa telecoms regulator, about how to proceed from here, based on broadcasting in a city with a well-developed television market and nestled among some pretty large mountains and hills. Currently, there are no regulatory standards set down for white space broadcasting in any major country, and gathering data so regulators can figure out what to do is a key objective of trials by Google, and also Microsoft and other companies.

That’s good for rural broadbands users in the UK, as currently the average speeds available to them are less than half that available in major cities and suburban areas – and, worse, the amount at which those speeds is increasing, in absolute terms, is roughly half as much per year as the increase seen in cities. 

But, if Wi-Fi broadcasting towers aren’t ambitious for you, you can always wait for Google’ Project Loon – giant weather balloons, broadcasting the internet to the most rural and isolated of communities.