Microsoft expands white spaces pilot to take low-cost broadband to SA

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Microsoft has expanded its white spaces project to South Africa, adding to its existing pilots in Kenya and Tanzania, geared at finding a solution to deliver low-cost broadband internet to remote areas.

‘White Spaces’ refers to the unused (analogue) frequencies available to television broadcasters, which are used to deliver wireless internet signals. The project, which is part of Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative, will use TV white spaces in conjunction with solar-powered stations to deliver low-cost and wireless internet services to five schools in the South African Limpopo province, hoping to give them download speeds of up to 4Mbps.

Microsoft, who faces competition from Google in this space, is taking it a step further, providing schools with Windows-based tablets and projectors and giving teachers laptops, to hopefully ingrain IT (and Windows-based services) into the education system. Solar panels will be available for charging devices where electricity is not readily available.

Mteto Nyati, managing director of Microsoft South Africa, stressed the importance of this project in connecting rural areas to the internet:

“Technology holds enormous potential for many aspects of development, but it is particularly key to areas such as education and healthcare,” Nyati said. “Reducing the cost of broadband access means millions more South Africans will get online. This will create new opportunities for education, healthcare, commerce and the delivery of government services across the country.”

Using available technologies such as TV White Spaces could lower the current ADSL prices in South Africa where, for example, 1Mbps ADSL costs about R340 (US$34) per month. Nyati told ZDNet that white spaces broadband should be “sustainable for between R20-R50″ (about US$2-US$5) for up to 4Mbps uncapped per month.

The project will be trialled in Limpopo for one year, and Nyati hopes that Microsoft will then partner with an existing ISP to take white spaces broadband to other underserved areas in the country. It will be completely funded by the 4Afrika initiative.

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