The global development of white spaces promises to deliver wireless broadband to rural regions all over the world, but U.S.-based tech giants are focusing on Africa at the moment. In the latest bid to command unchartered airwaves, Microsoft announced a white space trial in the Limpopo region of northern South Africa.
White space is the term given to unused television and radio frequencies that can be used to provide internet access, and both internet providers and tech companies have explored harnessing these unused bands for connecting remote regions. Microsoft’s project in South Africa joins earlier efforts in Kenya and Tanzania to get broadband into schools. The company has plans to supply hardware and IT training to classrooms as well, in a seemingly well-rounded package for the inhabitants of the experimental regions.
Bringing internet connectivity to schools will give students access to better learning tools, but it also paves the way for Microsoft’s business in burgeoning internet and mobile markets. The company’s 4Afrika program partly aims at mobile development as Microsoft and Huawei launched a phone operating Windows Phone 8 earlier this year. As Africa’s mobile scene is very spotty, with low commercial appeal from providers and serious access gaps, Microsoft stands to benefit from combining efforts to provide lower-cost smartphones and internet access. (Reports note that the potential price of broadband in the South African trial could be just $2-$5 for 4Mbps per month — vastly less than the $35 for 1Mpbs currently offered from the region’s ISPs.)
But Microsoft is not the only tech giant exploring ways to build out web connectivity in Africa. Google has also launched well-publicized initiatives to develop wireless spectrum in South Africa. Blimps are its primary vessel for delivering internet connectivity — a unique approach to overcoming the hurdles of laying fiber optic cables for web connections in regions rife with cable theft.
White space technology is still in the process of being built out as ISPs explore how to take advantage of the unused frequencies for wireless connectivity; the process itself is still in development even in countries that boast high-speed internet, including the U.K. and the U.S. But while these initiatives are still in their beginning stages, they set the stage for the emerging markets of Africa to quicken the pace of broadband access and introduce educational advantages for students who may have never even seen a computer.