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.

Google’s influence on Mobile Africa

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Google has for some time now espoused universal Web access and is currently employing various technologies and holding discussions with regulators from Kenya to South Africa to try and open up access to the mobile Web. Africa contains some of the fastest growing economies in the world and the exponential uptake in mobile devices across the continent and access to the Internet are seen as key in lifting economies up the value chain and helping to eradicate poverty through financial, social and political inclusion. Africa however has suffered from a lack of technological infrastructure and Google is now trying to change this.

The Internet giant is planning on building high speed wireless networks in sub-Saharan Africa using high-altitude balloons which are able to transmit signals across thousands of kilometres. One of its first projects on the continent is a wireless broadband network in Cape Town using several masts in Stellenbosch university to transmit signals to 10 local schools. Google is also currently in discussions with telecoms firms and looking at establishing partnerships to open up Internet access to people in rural areas. There is no clear solution however on a continent with a severe lack of infrastructure and nobody is certain as to how the future will look. What is certain however is that Google wants to be at the forefront of developments.

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. There is also likely to be a flood of cheap smartphones in 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 dominance of the smartphone market is not itself a moneymaker. It gives away its open-sourced software on Android for free so as to increase the reach of its information-gathering system. Making Android free to developers has never been simply about opening up the Mobile Web. It is a way of ensuring that Google’s apps and services are used on smartphones harnessing as much data, information and add revenue as possible. Google now wishes to break into the African and Asian markets by reducing the cost of smartphones. It is doing this to exert is monopoly position in these, in Internet terms, virgin territories.

So, it is easy to understand why Google is helping to bring mobile Internet access to parts of Africa. Google’s continued growth depends on reaching new people in the developing world, who will be the next generation of its customers. Its 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.

Lagos vies with Nairobi to become region’s tech hub

Lagos Island and part of Lagos Harbour, taken ...

Lagos Island and part of Lagos Harbour, taken from close to Victoria Island, looking north-west (NB this is not Ikoyi Bay as wrongly labelled elsewhere) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bustling, metropolitan city of Lagos in Nigeria has an ever growing population of some 8m people and is the country’s economic powerhouse making a significant contribution to its overall GDP. The port city is a city of islands connected by ferries and highways and is the capital of Lagos State. The standard of living is relatively high compared to many cities in Africa and, despite problems such as pollution and gridlocked city traffic, people flock to Lagos from far and wide in Africa with an estimated 30,000 people arriving everyday.

Lagos aspires to be, alongside Accra, Cape Town and Nairobi one of the continent’s tech powerhouses. Indeed, May’s three day Mobile Web West Africa event sold out its Lagos conference, bringing together companies, startups, inspiring investors and developers. The three-day event was the background to the emerging economic and inspired power of the region, and is a statement of intent to be at the centre of mobile innovation.

There are countless examples of centres of innovation cropping up in Lagos. Co Creation Hub is a collaborative work space for young entrepreneurs and is dedicated to accelerating the application of technology for economic prosperity. Individuals converge in one space to share ideas. They even have the chance to meet VCs and angels looking for promising investments. However, such meetup hubs compete with others around the continent. Nairobi has the iHub, a similar space, supported by companies like Google, Intel and Samsung. Nairobi has also recently begun construction of the much discussed Konza City, or ‘Silicon Savannah’ as it is often called. This is a project to build Africa’s most modern city with technology and innovation at the centre and will potentially be a blueprint for further African cities.

In Nigeria, mobile is also being used to reach the poorest and help economic and social prosperity. A mobile SMS educational tool has recently launched aimed at providing primary school teachers with regular updates on educational content to assist with classroom teaching. Launched by UNESCO, the technology will be available to anyone in Nigeria and will send teachers messages with educational information and advice once a day. The project should reach thousands of teachers across the country, who were previously out of reach and simply lacked the resources to teach effectively. Mobile SMS is a step in the right direction.

In Nigeria, and many of the major cities in Africa, there is a sense that anything is possible and the continent is ripe for investment and full of opportunity. A lack of traditional infrastructure is helping drive entrepreneurship, in mobile especially, and suggest that Africa will be the continent of the 21st century.

Kenya’s iCow

Traditional farming in Guinea, West Africa

Traditional farming in Guinea, West Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Africa is a continent that is on the rise and examples of how mobile technology is enhancing everyday life are plentiful. Large tech-focused companies such as Microsoft and Google are investing heavily there, sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing Mobile Market in the world and innovative Mobile solutions such as M-PESA are developed by young, ambitious entrepreneurs. Digital technology is being used to overcome the continent’s obstacles for growth such as the use of text-based monitoring in the elections in Kenya, mHealth to improve the continent’s healthcare and in money and education.

Kenya’s iCow is another example of how mobile App development can help people in traditional farming jobs, in a continent where the majority of work is still very much agricultural. Whereby it has been difficult to find solutions to long-standing problems, Mobile technology has allowed people to find these solutions and leap-frog previous technological advances. The iCow works off a very simple premise, it allows farmers to register their cow with a text and receive regular updates on gestation periods, when cows are most likely to be ready to mate, as well as information on recent outbreaks of diseases.

42,000 farmers have signed up, which is a small percentage of Kenya’s farming population, so the potential is huge for a product that has already been said to have improved the lives and productivity of farmers by giving them more power and control over their livestock.

In a continent where many countries are now witnessing incredible growth in Mobile usage and where internet access through Mobile web is far out-stripping Desktop access, iCow is another example of progress in a continent ripe for investment and opportunities.