Google and Microsoft aim to use ‘white space’ in Africa to deliver Internet access

Image representing Microsoft as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

Microsoft will soon be piloting an Internet connectivity ‘white spaces’ project in rural South Africa, following on from similar projects in Kenya and Tanzania earlier this year. The trial will take place in Limpopo, and is similar to the pilot in Kenya as it targets very rural areas which may not even have access to the electricity grid. The Internet giant continues to eye its next generation of customers and aims to deliver broadband at reduced cost to the rural masses in Africa. ‘White spaces’ is a term for utilising unused frequencies for television broadcasters to deliver Internet services. Google also launched a project earlier this year attempting to bring fast speed Internet access to South Africa, using high altitude balloons or ‘blimps’ capable of transmitting signals across thousands of kilometres. The Google project is focusing on developing a wireless broadband network in Cape Town, using masts to transmit signals to local schools in Stellenbosch.

The Microsoft project will use the TV ‘white spaces’ and solar-based power stations to deliver low-cost broadband to 5 schools in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Microsoft isn’t simply providing Web access and says the schools will be kitted out with Windows-based tablets and projectors, while teachers will get laptops and training. Since access to power can be an issue in parts of South Africa, there will also be solar panels for charging devices where mains electricity is not available. So alongside the philanthropic leanings, Microsoft is clearly looking to engage the next wave of potential customers.

The Limpopo trial, which aims to connect local schools, is similar to Microsoft’s Kenyan pilot, in that it targets very rural areas that may not even be on the electricity grid (the Tanzanian pilot was more urban, dealing with high-density, low-income areas). The Limpopo pilot involves solar-powered base stations and – Microsoft being Microsoft – each school also gets a range of Windows tablets for pupils, laptops and training for teachers, projectors and teaching materials.

The ‘white spaces’ technology isn’t solely for emerging markets, and it could have potential right across the world. Google’s TV white space database was approved in the US just last month, while it was recently reported that both Microsoft and Google are considering launching the project in the UK in the future.

Large Internet players like Facebook, Microsoft and Google often talk about the next billion people to access the Internet, and how the majority of them will come from the developing world and will access it through mobile devices. Recent reports highlighted the fact that Facebook and Google are persuading wireless carriers to offer cheap or free internet access to customers for stripped-down access to the web giants’ sites. Considering that Facebook currently only has access to about 5% of the African continent’s population, there is a massive opportunity here for the social networking giant,

There is also likely to be an influx of cheap, sub-100 dollar smartphones into Africa over the coming years and Google wants to be at the forefront of this through the production of cheap Nexus phones and tablets. Google’s gives away its open-sourced software on Android for free so as to increase the reach of its information-gathering system, and Africa is seen as a massive opportunity. Google wishes to break into African and Asian markets by reducing the cost of smartphones and is doing this to exert is monopoly position in these, in Internet terms, virgin territories.

So, it is easy to understand why the likes of Google and Microsoft are looking into innovative ways of bring high speed broadband to the masses in Africa. The Internet giants’ continued growth depends on reaching new people in the developing world, who will be the next generation of its customers. Their intentions clearly aren’t completely philanthropic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enormously beneficial to developing economies whose people are accessing the Internet for the first time. In the end, for both Google and Microsoft this all comes down to wanting to spread connectivity, and therefore those companies’ addressable markets. This connectivity will also have major benefits for the economies of the countries concerned, so everyone should do well out of it.

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