Google’s South African TV white spaces broadband trial is over — and it works

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Those balloons may be getting all the attention, but Google’s got other plans to help connect the next billion users to the internet. The search giant has been involved in a partnership to test whether spare TV spectrum could be used to bring high-speed internet to rural areas, and the trial running in Cape Town, South Africa has just concluded… and it turns out that it works.

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The TV white spaces (TVWS) trial saw Google and partners like TENET, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Meraka, the e-Schools Network and the Wireless Access Providers’ Association rolling out broadband access to ten schools in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, giving them a 2.5 mbps service during peak periods from March to September this year. The test hoped to prove that TVWS could successfully be used to provide wireless internet access to some 9 000 students without interfering with TV reception in the area, as well as to raise awareness about the potential of the technology in the country and the broader continent.

According to the preliminary findings, the six month trial saw the schools obtain fairly reliable download and upload speeds using the broadcast spectrum. Although ICASA, the country’s communications regulator, still has to draw up the policy framework before TVWS can be used more broadly, Google is calling the trial a success. In a blog post, Google South Africa policy manager, Fortune Sibanda, says that “The participating schools, which previously had slow or unreliable internet connections, experienced high-speed broadband access for the first time. 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.”

As TENET points out, there are some limitations to the technology — for example, to be included in the trial, the schools had to be located within ten kilometres of the base station, otherwise they fell outside the signal range. Still, Google is hopeful it could offer users in rural areas or those living in locations with a lack of communications infrastructure another way to connect to the internet.

Wondering what happens to the schools now the trial is over? They’re not being forced back to their post-broadband existence. Even though the test officially ended on 25 September, ICASA accepted a set of regulations by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s ICT arm, Meraka, to allow the network to remain active — so the schools are still using TVWS to connect to the web.

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