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

Image representing Microsoft as depicted in Cr...

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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.

Mobile phones to exceed people by 2014. Don’t leave Africa behind

Apple iPhone 3GS, Motorola Milestone and LG GW60

Apple iPhone 3GS, Motorola Milestone and LG GW60 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to a new report from the International Telecomms Union (ITU) the number of mobile phone subscriptions is expected to pass seven billion by early 2013, surpassing the world’s population of 7.1 billion. This news come as little surprise to many.

Despite revelations and examples of how mobile technology is being used in healthcare, finance, education and politics, Africa is still well behind in both mobile subscriptions per population and, even more so, in Internet access. The study revealed that while 40 per cent of the world’s population is online, yet only 16 per cent of Africa has access to the internet demonstrating how the continent is still lagging behind.

The mobile device, and its gateway to the internet, offers Africa the opportunity to skip the desktop and laptop generation and go straight into mobile internet access, which is likely to overtake desktop internet access globally over the next few years. Mobile access has democratised technology and allows people to connect with one another across geographical borders. Given the size of the continent, the distances people need to travel to earn a living and the lack of transport infrastructure, this cross-border point is crucial. The mobile device acts as the social glue for a society from both a personal point of view as well as a broader societal perspective. The next step for Africa is going beyond standard SMS and call services and using the device to access online information. To this point, it is crucial that the African continent is not left behind.

What hope is there? Africa does have some of the fastest growing economies in the world and has a burgeoning middle class, driving demand for mobile phones. The African market is also likely to see a flood of much cheaper smartphones that are more practical and allow access to the Internet, which for most Africans is still not accessible through the ubiquitous feature phone.

Much debate has taken place over development aid and whether or not it is the most effective way of helping African people in need. This site does not attempt to contribute to that debate. However, could mobile phone access as well as the cost of accessing the internet through mobile broadband be subsidised by development aid, allowing the mobile device to be used in crucial areas such as education, agriculture and healthcare?

Finally, could we start to see advertisers subsidise data therefore opening access, with the awareness that people will be put off viewing content because of the high data costs associated? This is certainly a potential in the West (think the growth of Mobile Video and data costs associated) and the developing world could follow suit.

It is clear that, despite the fact that mobile penetration is making significant strides in Africa, it lacks behind Europe, Asia and the Americas in subscriptions per head. To a greater extent, Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in overall internet access. More needs to be done to increase access to this tool of empowerment and ensure Africa is not left behind.